In Petto’s The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, he spends several pages discussing whether or not the covenant of grace is conditional or unconditional. He does so in his chapter “Of the Differences between the Old and the New Covenant; and the Excellency of the latter above the former.” which notes the following:
- 1. The new covenant presupposes obedience unto life to be performed already by Jesus Christ, and so is better than the Old (Sinai), which requires an after performance of it… Hence in opposition to that Sinai law, which ran upon those terms, do and live, under the dispensation of the new, we hear so often of Believe and be saved, and he which believeth hath everlasting life, Mark xvi. 16. John iii. 16, 36…
- The new covenant represents the Lord as dealing with his people universally in a way of promise; and so is better than the old, which represents him as treating them in a way of threatening…
- The new covenant consists of absolute promises, and therefore is better than the old Sinai covenant, which ran upon conditional promises, indeed, had works as its condition… The apostle, in the text (Heb vii. 10-13), is purposely putting a difference between these; and, seeing the old covenant was unquestionably conditional, and the new here in opposition to it, or distinction from it, is as undoubtedly absolute; must it not needs be concluded, that herein stand much of the excellence of the new above the old?…
…And whereas some argue for conditions from the nature of a covenant, against that it is asserted to be a last will or testament, which may bequeath legacies without any condition.
There is a vast difference between the way of Jesus Christ his acting in the work of his mediation before and since his incarnation, and the latter is much more glorious than the former. Before, he might plead, Father, thou hast promised me, upon my obedience, hereafter to be performed, that those souls with I have undertaken for, should enjoy such blessings: There was a mutual trust between them, and so he might plead it in point of faithfulness. But now, he hath actually performed the condition of the covenant, and may plead it in point of justice. Christ being actually exhibited as a propitiation, upon that, God is said, Rom iii. 25, 26, to declare at this time his righteousness, &c.: in opposition to the time of the old testament, he says, at this time; that is, at the time of the new testament, wherein the blood of Jesus Christ is truly shed: Now God declares his righteousness in the justifying him that believes in Jesus. It is an act of grace to those who attain the remission of sin, but an act of righteousness to Jesus Christ. He may plead, Father, I have made satisfaction to the full for the sin of these souls, now declare your righteousness in pardoning of them: it is that which I have purchased for them, I have finished the work thou gavest me to do, John xvii. 4. I have paid the full price of their redemption, now let them have what I have procured for them. Thus he appears in heaven in our nature, not as a mere intercessor, but as an advocate, 1 John ii. 1: to plead that, in law, in right we are to be discharged. And this puts a great excellence upon the new covenant, that it is in itself, and to Jesus Christ, thus absolute.
And note, if some privileges of the covenant were dispensed out properly in a conditional way (as suppose justification were afforded upon faith as a condition, or temporal mercies upon obedience), yet this would be far from proving any thing to be the condition of the promise, or of the covenant itself. Indeed even faith is a particular blessing of it, and therefore cannot be the condition of the whole covenant; for what shall be the condition of faith? And there is no such special covenant now extant, as the old was, for temporal mercies; they are indefinitely promised, and sovereign grace is the determining rule of dispensing out these to the saints when they are wanted, for time and measure, as it is most for the glory of God and their good, Mat. vi. 32, 33. Nothing performed by us, then, is conditio faederis, the condition of the covenant itself; Jesus Christ has performed all required that way.
But whether any thing be conditio faederatorum is now to be considered.
Object. Is the new covenant absolute to us, or conditional?
Are there not conditional promises therein to us, as there were in the old unto Israel? Can we expect any mercy, but upon our performing some condition it is promised to?
If condition be taken improperly, for that which is only a connex action, or, medium fruitionis, a necessary duty, way, or means, in order to the enjoyment of promised mercies. In this sense, I acknowledge, there are some promises belonging to the new covenant which are conditional; and thus are many scriptures to be taken which are urged this way. That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant? I should answer yes; for, in the very covenant itself, it is promised that he will write his laws on their hearts, Heb viii. 10., and that implies faith, repentance, and every gracious frame; and those that have the Lord for their God are his people. If the accusation be, that there is a want of interest in Jesus Christ, they need not plead that they have fulfilled the condition of the covenant; but, that the covenant itself, in some promise of it, (which uses to be distinct from its condition,) has its accomplishment upon them therein. And those that are altogether without those precious graces, are stranger to the covenant, Eph. ii. 12.; they cannot lay claim to the blessings of it. It is our duty earnestly to be seeking after what is promised, and one blessing may be sought as a means to another; as, the spirit as a means of faith, and faith as a means to obedience, Gal. v. 6. Believing is a great duty in connexion with, and a means of, salvation; he that believes shall be saved, Mark xvi. 16. John ii. 36. Eph ii. 8. 1 Pet. i. 5, 9. There is an order in giving forth these blessings to us, and that by divine appointment; so as the neglecting to seek them therein, is highly displeasing to God. This is our privilege that divine promises are so conjoined and twisted together, for the encouragement of souls in seeking after them, that if one be taken, many more go along with it; like many links in a chain that are closed into each other. The means and the end must not be severed.
Where there is such a connexion of duties, graces, and blessings the matters may be sometimes expressed in a conditional form, with an if, as, Rom. x. 9. If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart, thou shalt be saved, Such ifs note the verity of such propositions in their connexion; they affirm this or that to be a certain truth, as that, he which believes shall undoubtedly be saved, yet that grace is not properly the condition of salvation; for, even believing is absolutely promised, so as nothing shall intervene to hinder it, Isa. liii. 10, 11. Heb vii. 10. In that improper sense, some scriptures seem to speak of conditions, viz. they intimate a connexion between covenant blessings; some are conjoined as means and end, yet the promises are really absolute for their performance.
There is a vast difference between the way of the Lord in the dispensation of covenant blessings, and the tenor of the covenant. Or, between the new covenant itself, and the means which the Lord uses for its execution and accomplishment.
The covenant itself is an absolute grant, not only to Jesus Christ, but in him to the house of Israel and Judah, Heb. viii. Yet what the Lord has absolutely promised, and is determined and resolved upon to guarantee to them, may be conditionally propounded as a quickening means to souls seeking a participation of it. As, it was absolutely determined, yea, and declared by the Lord, that those very persons which were in the ship should be preserved, Acts xxvii. 22. There shall not be a loss of any man’s life, and verse 25. I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me. Yet, as a means to their preservation, he speaks to them conditionally, verse 31. Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved. So although the salvation of all the elect, and also the causing them to believe, is absolutely intended; yet, as a means that he may urge the duty upon souls with greater vehemence and earnestness, the Lord may speak in a conditional way, if ye believe ye shall be saved, when it is certain they shall believe.
There is no such condition of the new covenant to us, as there was in the old to Israel. For, the apostle comparing them together; and, in opposition to the old, he gives the new altogether in absolute promises, and that to Israel, Heb. viii.; and, showing that the new is not according to the old, he discovers wherein the difference lay, verse 9. Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not; saith the Lord; and, Jer. xxxi. 32. which covenant they broke, &c.
This argues that the condition of the old was such as the performance of it did give them assurance of the temporal mercies promised, and a right to them, and such as failed in, left them at uncertainties whether they should enjoy them or not; so as it was not only in itself and its own nature uncertain, but even as to the event, I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
If their performing the condition had been as absolutely promised, as the blessings of the new covenant are, then Israel would have continued in it (which they did not), and could not have forfeited what was promised thereupon, as diverse times they did, and were excluded out of Canaan upon that account. – Jurists say, a condition is a rate, manner, or law, annexed to men’s acts, staying or suspending the same, and making them uncertain, whether they shall take effect or not. And thus condition is opposed to absolute.
That there is no such condition in the new covenant to be performed by us, giving right and title to the blessings of it, and leaving at uncertainties and liability to missing of them, as there was in the old to be fulfilled by Israel, may appear,
1._ If there be any, it must either be an antecedent or a subsequent condition; but neither. There can be no such antecedent condition, by the performance of which we get and gain entrance or admittance into covenant; for, till we be in it, no act put forth by us can find any acception with God, Heb. xi. 6. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. And our being, in covenant is, in order of nature, (though not of time,) before faith; because it is a privilege or benefit of the covenant, a part of the new heart, a fruit of the spirit; and so the spirit (which is the worker of it, and another blessing of the covenant,) is given first in order before it. Jesus Christ is the first saving gift, Rom vii. 32., and with him he freely giveth all things. Men ought to be in the use of means; but it is the act of God that gives admission into the covenant, Ezek. xvi. 8. I entered into covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine. Immediately before, they were polluted in their blood, verse 6.; in an utter incapacity for acting in any pleasing way, so as to get into covenant. Neither is there any subsequent condition to be fulfilled by us: the use of that is, for the continuation of a right, and upon failing thereof, all is forfeited, as in the case of Adam. – Whereas there is no act of ours whereby our right to covenant blessings is continued unto us, upon failing whereof they may be forfeited. Our right, and the ground of our, claim, is upon a higher account than any act of our own; it is even the purchase of Jesus Christ; and they are the sure mercies of David, Isa. lv. 3. Sure to all the seed, Rom. iv. 16. And when they are become believers, eternal life is absolutely promised, John iii. 16, 36. 1 John v. 10, 11, 12., but conditionally, promised to them.
2._ The Lord has given assurance that there shall never be an utter violation of the new covenant, and therefore it has no such condition as was annexed to the old; for, the Lord declares that they had broken his covenant, Jer xi. 3, 4, 10. Jer xxxi. 32. But the new covenant is secured from such a violation: it cannot be disannulled so as the persons interested in it should be deprived of the great blessings promised therein, Jer. xxxii. 40. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. But may there not be such a condition of it as they may come short of all its blessings? No: I will not turn away from them to do them good, but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. If there were any danger of forfeiting and losing these, it must be either on God’s part, by his leaving of them, or on their part, by their departing from him; and here the Lord has undertaken to secure against both these, and so the matter is out of question; it was not thus in the old covenant.
Indeed what the Lord hath absolutely promised, yet he has appointed means in order to the attaining of it, internal as faith, and external as ordinances; and commands utmost attendance upon him ordinarily in the use thereof; this is necessary as a duty, and sin arises upon neglect of it. Thus the Lord is unalterably determined to guarantee a frame of obedience, Ezek. xxxvi. 25-30. Yet obedience is to be performed by us; we are to be the agents, and we may sin about the means in the way to the enjoyment of such mercy, as is laid up in absolute promises – Faith is to be exercised in these, (else what use are they of?) and we may be faulty in not attending to it.
3._ If there be any such condition of the new covenant, it were most like to be precious faith; but that is not…
4._ Our obedience, though evangelical, is no such condition of the new covenant, as there was of the old unto Israel.
Summary and Comparison
Petto goes on to argue several other points at length and list other differences between the new and old covenants besides their conditionality. To summarize his point, we can say that the new covenant is not like the old covenant because the old covenant could be broken, but the new cannot. Everything required of us in the new covenant is also a blessing of the new covenant. Apostasy from the new covenant is impossible.
Compare Petto’s view with standard Reformed thinking today, such as the PCA Book of Order:
By virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God’s covenant ordinance, made members of the Church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. When they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church.
PCA Book of Order 56-4.j
Paedobaptism (or at least the reasoning of 98% of Reformed paedobaptists) is founded upon a faulty understanding of the New Covenant. It is not possible for someone to be a new covenant breaker.
This difference between Petto and the majority Reformed position is precisely why I find Mark Jones’ comments in the forward to Petto’s book so unhelpful.
The history of Reformed covenant theology has not always been well understood. Richard Greaves refers to Petto, as well as Owen, Goodwin, and Ussher, as “strict Calvinists” who belong to one of three different groups in the covenant tradition. Greaves mistakenly posits a tension between the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition, which supposedly distinguished itself by promulgating an unconditional character to the covenant of grace, and the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition, which is characterized by the conditional nature of the covenant of grace. Graves is wrong to place these two groups in tension with one another. The truth is that both ‘groups’ understood the covenant of grace as having conditions; namely, faith and obedience. However, because the faith and obedience that is required in the covenant of grace is the “gift of God” it may also be said that the covenant of grace is some sense unconditional. These nuances have often been missing in the twentieth-century historiography.
Per my reading, Jones attempts to obliterate the distinction Petto labors to carefully establish between his view and the view of those who believe one can break the new covenant by arguing there really is no difference.
Though he doesn’t mention us by name, the article is an attempted rebuke of Covenantal Baptists (note that the article is filed under his “baptism” category even though nothing in the article mentions anything about baptism) who have stated their affinity for John Owen’s covenant theology, specifically his view of the New Covenant. McMahon states:
It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… There is a wave of theological error purporting that the New Covenant, or Covenant of Grace fully expressed in the New Testament, was a “brand new,” or as some parrot Hebrews, “better” covenant, but translate this theologically as “wholly different.”…consideration should taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.
McMahon explains Owen taught that the Covenant of Redemption was a covenant of works between the Father and the Son. Quoting Owen:
“The will of the Father appointing and designing the Son to be the head, husband, deliverer, and redeemer of his elect, his church, his people, whom he did foreknow, with the will of the Son voluntarily, freely undertaking that work and all that was required thereunto, is that compact (for in that form it is proposed in the Scripture) that we treat of.” (12:496)
McMahon explains that this supports all of God’s work in time with the elect. “It is the foundation for everything that God will do in time in redeeming His bride for Himself.” God applies the benefits of the Covenant of Redemption to the elect by means of the Covenant of Grace. He elaborates:
It would be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is coextensive for the elect in the Covenant of Grace by the blessings imparted by the Covenant of Redemption. But, it would also be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is not coextensive in the Covenant of Grace for those who are not elect, that is why Owen had no problem admitting infants in the Covenant of Grace in any administration of it.
McMahon chastises baptists by explaining that Owen simply held the standard reformed formulation of the Covenant of Grace as consisting of numerous administrations, of which the New Covenant was only the most recent. According to McMahon, Owen taught that the New Covenant was merely a renewal of the previous administrations of the Covenant of Grace. McMahon states:
“By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.” (6:70, Emphasis mine.) Owen then spends another page outlining why it is different administrations of the same covenant. (cf. 6:71ff)
He sums this up in saying, “The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant.” (6:71)
The problem with McMahon’s essay is two-fold:
- McMahon jumps all over the prolific work of Owen. He quotes from numerous different writings as it fits his argument. The problem is that McMahon fails to account for growth/change in Owen’s thought over the 40 years that he wrote. Therefore what Owen may have said in one place is not necessarily consistent with what he may have said later or earlier in his life. Jeffrey D. Johnson in his recent book The Fatal Flaw in the Theology Behind Infant Baptism notes this change when specifically comparing Owen’s work “Biblical Theology” with his Hebrews commentary.
- McMahon very blatantly and inexcusably misreads Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, his most mature stating of his views on the subject.
Two Covenants or One?
The previous quotation from McMahon (and Owen) suggests that in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen said the new covenant is simply a different administration of the same covenant as Sinai. The egregious error is that the section McMahon quotes from Owen is actually the section where Owen is summarizing the view he disagrees with! (See Brenton Ferry’s criticism of Jeong Koo Jeon for making the exact same error in Ferry’s chapter of The Law is Not of Faith)
Here is what Owen states:
On this consideration it is said by some, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, in their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant, called two covenants from some different outward solemnities and duties of worship attending them. To clearly discuss this with the minimum of unnecessary difficulty the following clarifications should be observed and noted, —
1. That by the old covenant, the original covenant of works, made with Adam and all mankind in him, is not intended; for this is undoubtedly a covenant different in its essence and substance from the new.
[[[2. By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.]]] This latter being the point to be examined.
As on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in several other places in the Scriptures, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed to them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants. This, therefore, we must inquire into;
So Owen states that the precise point of this part of his commentary is to decide if the old and the new are two different covenants, or just two different administrations of the same covenant. He starts by summarizing the One Covenant View. This summary is what McMahon erroneously claims is Owen stating his own view.
The Plausibility of the One Covenant View
…[[[The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it has the appearance and name of another covenant.]]]
After summarizing and explaining the One Covenant View under the heading “The Plausibility of the One Covenant View” Owen goes on to describe the alternative view:
The Lutheran Insistence on Two Distinct Covenants
The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle.
Their arguments are
1. Because in the Scripture they are often so called (separate covenants), and compared with one another, and sometimes opposed to one another; the first and the last, the new and the old.
2. Because the covenant of grace in Christ is eternal, immutable, always the same, subject to no alteration, no change or abrogation; neither can these things be said of it with respect to any administration of it as they are of the old covenant.
So then which view does Owen side with?
THE TWO COVENANTS ARE DISTINCT COVENANTS
…5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.
Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace:
Could Owen be any clearer? I don’t think so. McMahon misunderstands every quotation he supplies from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8. I honestly do not know how McMahon could so severely blunder his reading of Owen. It seems the only options are he intentionally misrepresents Owen, or he read Owen’s commentary so quickly as to not read what Owen actually said. I know he is a very busy person, and I don’t want to charge McMahon with the former, so it must have been the latter. Either way, it makes him an unreliable guide on this matter. This error alone renders McMahon’s entire essay faulty.
The Newness of the New Covenant
In keeping with this error, McMahon says “After stating that the new is not ‘brand new’, Owen describes how the new is different than the old” and then goes on to list 5 points of difference. The problem is that McMahon is once again quoting Owen’s summary of the reformed view! He is listing the 5 ways in which the reformed divines say there is a difference.
Owen saves his view of the differences for later when he lists 17 particular differences!
“Do This And Live” Foundation for All Covenants?
Central to his thesis is McMahon’s attempt to make Owen say that every covenant, including the Covenant of Grace is founded upon the principle “Do this and live.” McMahon states:
What is a covenant? According to Owen, the Covenant of Works subsists in the foundation or template for all covenants. He says, “The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this, — that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.” (5:275, Emphasis Mine) This is striking in that Owen templates the structure of “covenant” in “do this and live.”
This is a very serious misreading of Owen. (The same misreading is found in this essay by Anglican Priest Steve Griffith http://www.johnowen.org/media/griffiths_owen_federal_theology.pdf. It appears that the misreading of both of these authors may have its roots in Sinclair Ferguson, but I don’t have a copy of his book to compare.) McMahon argues that Owen is teaching that the Covenant of Grace is the same covenant for substance and essence as the Covenant of Works! McMahon claims that the substance of the Covenant of Grace is “Do this, and live.” But is that what Owen actually said?
XIII. The nature of justification proved from the difference of the covenants
The difference between the two covenants stated–Argument from thence
That which we plead in the third place unto our purpose is, the difference between the two covenants. And herein it may be observed,- -
1. That by the two covenants I understand those which were absolutely given unto the whole church, and were all to bring it “eis teleioteta”,–unto a complete and perfect state; that is, the covenant of works, or the law of our creation as it was given unto us, with promises and threatening, or rewards and punishments, annexed unto it; and the covenant of grace, revealed and proposed in the first promise. As unto the covenant of Sinai, and the new testament as actually confirmed in the death of Christ, with all the spiritual privileges thence emerging, and the differences between them, they belong not unto our present argument.
2. The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this,–that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.
3. Hence two things belonged unto this covenant:–First, That all things were transacted immediately between God and man. There was no mediator in it, no one to undertake any thing, either on the part of God or man, between them; for the whole depending on every one’s personal obedience, there was no place for a mediator. Secondly, That nothing but perfect, sinless obedience would be accepted with God, or preserve the covenant in its primitive state and condition. There was nothing in it as to pardon of sin, no provision for any defect in personal obedience.
4. Wherefore, this covenant being once established between God and man, there could be no new covenant made, unless the essential form of it were of another nature,–namely, that our own personal obedience be not the rule and cause of our acceptation and justification before God; for whilst this is so, as was before observed, the covenant is still the same, however the dispensation of it may be reformed or reduced to suit unto our present state and condition. What grace soever might be introduced into it, that could not be so which excluded all works from being the cause of our justification. But if a new covenant be made, such grace must be provided as is absolutely inconsistent with any works of ours, as unto the first ends of the covenant; as the apostle declares, Rom.11:6.
5. Wherefore, the covenant of grace, supposing it a new, real, absolute covenant, and not a reformation of the dispensation of the old, or a reduction of it unto the use of our present condition (as some imagine it to be), must differ, in the essence, substance, and nature of it, from that first covenant of works. And this it cannot do if we are to be justified before God on our personal obedience; wherein the essence of the first covenant consisted. If, then, the righteousness wherewith we are justified before God be our own, our own personal righteousness, we are yet under the first covenant, and no other.
6. But things in the new covenant are indeed quite otherwise; for,- -First, It is of grace, which wholly excludes works; that is, so of grace, as that our own works are not the means of justification before God; as in the places before alleged. Secondly, It has a mediator and surety; which is built alone on this supposition, that what we cannot do in ourselves which was originally required of us, and what the law of the first covenant cannot enable us to perform, that should be performed for us by our mediator and surety. And if this be not included in the very first notion of a mediator and surety, yet it is in that of a mediator or surety that does voluntarily interpose himself, upon an open acknowledgment that those for whom he undertakes were utterly insufficient to perform
It is quite inexplicable how McMahon could misread Owen so severely yet again. The very title of this section makes it clear that Owen is articulating a contrast, a difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, not their similarity!
Is the New Covenant Conditional?
The entire thrust of McMahon’s essay is to demonstrate that Owen taught that the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace had conditions that could be broken by its members. He desires to show that Owen taught both elect and non-elect individuals are members of the Covenant of Grace, but only the elect have the power/grace to fulfill the conditions of it by means of the Covenant of Redemption. McMahon states:
Owen has absolutely no problem in stating that in every covenant made, there are conditions to be met. In the external administration of the Covenant of Grace, that which pertains to the New Covenant in the New Testament as well as its expression in the Old Testament, men must meet specific requirements in order to be saved. But they cannot. God must then “take up both sides.” This is why the Covenant of Redemption is so important in Owen’s overall view of Covenant Theology. Jesus Christ, as Mediator, places all the responsibility, in time, under the law, on Himself, for all those for whom He will live and die. Men, then, by virtue of Christ’s work, are graciously saved and regenerated. That does not mean that only the regenerate live and move in the Covenant of Grace. Abraham and his seed are covenanted with God. But it certainly means, by Owen’s own definition, that only the elect participate in the fruits of the Covenant of Redemption.
…The Covenant of Grace is the sphere in which God works, handling both believers and unbelievers in that context upon condition of their obedience.
The quotations McMahon provides in this section of his essay are all from Volume XI of Owen’s Works: “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed” which was written in 1654. I have not read the work so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his quotes.
However, here are the words of Owen 26 years later, speaking of the New Covenant in Hebrews 8:10
A covenant properly is a compact or agreement on certain terms mutually stipulated by two or more parties. As promises are the foundation and rise of it, as it is between God and man, so it compriseth also precepts, or laws of obedience, which are prescribed unto man on his part to be observed. But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises, as we shall see in the explication of it…
…(3.) It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it. For, — [1.] This would render the covenant inferior in a way of grace unto that which God made with the people at Horeb. For he declares that there was not any thing in them that moved him either to make that covenant, or to take them into it with himself. Everywhere he asserts this to be an act of his mere grace and favor. Yea, he frequently declares, that he took them into covenant, not only without respect unto any thing of good in them, but although they were evil and stubborn. See Deuteronomy 7:7,8, 9:4, 5. [2.] It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.
…(5.) It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.
(6.) Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.
…(9.) Although diaqh>kh, the word here used, may signify and be rightly rendered a “covenant,” in the same manner as tyriB] doth, yet that which is intended is properly a “testament,” or a “testamentary disposition” of good things. It is the will of God in and by Jesus Christ, his death and bloodshedding, to give freely unto us the whole inheritance of grace and glory. And under this notion the covenant hath no condition, nor are any such either expressed or intimated in this place.
And so we see once again that Owen argues at length against the position McMahon attributes to him. This is the foundation of McMahon’s thesis, and it is shown to be faulty as well.
Covenant of Grace Made with Non-Elect?
In line with the previous point is McMahon’s contention that Owen taught the Covenant of Grace is made with both the elect and non-elect.
The Covenant of Grace, for the elect, cannot be broken because it logically flows from the Covenant of Redemption. However, those “covenanted” with God, who are not regenerate, something Owen contends for, will always break the covenant and enact the threatenings held in the sign placed upon them. (16:258ff)
This is seen to be false according to the previous quote from Owen regarding conditions in the New Covenant.
…Part of the confusion here is due to the fact that many make the Covenant of Grace too restrictive. They do not allow for Owen’s “covenant” definition, and therefore concluded that the Covenant of Grace is something brand “new”, not a renewal of anything former, and made internally, without any external portions, only with the elect.
…This is where Owen emphatically disagrees, even if only on the basis of the Covenant of Redemption, with those who would “simply” equate the Covenant of Grace with salvation; i.e. that the Covenant of Grace only contains inward and no outward expressions, or it only provides a context for the regenerate and not unbelievers.
First, we already demonstrated that what McMahon claims is “Owen’s ‘covenant’ definition” is in fact not. Second, compare McMahon’s summary of Owen with Owen’s own words:
The covenant of grace in Christ is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. For by the making of this covenant with any, the effectual communication of the grace of it to them is principally intended. Nor can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins are pardoned by virtue of it, and in whose hearts the law of God is written; which are the express promises of it. And it was with respect to those of this sort among that people that the covenant was promised to be made with them. See Rom 9:27-33; 11:7. But in respect of the outward dispensation of the covenant, it is extended beyond the effectual communication of the grace of it. And in respect to that did the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham lie.
(By outward dispensation of the covenant of grace, Owen has in mind the preaching of the Word, etc – this is not the same thing as the “external administration/membership” that you hear other reformed writers, like McMahon, talk about)
Abrahamic and New Covenant the Same?
One final note needs to be made regarding the relationship of the Abrahamic Covenant to the New Covenant in Owen’s mind. McMahon states:
with Owen, the Abrahamic and New Covenant are the same
And yet, if we once again allow Owen to speak for himself, we will hear just the opposite:
When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.
But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,
McMahon labored over this essay to warn Christians not to misread and therefore misrepresent Owen’s view of God’s covenants, and yet he has egregiously misread Owen himself. The irony would be quite humorous if the arrogant disdain from men like McMahon for baptists was not so aggravating. In conclusion, do not be intimidated and misled. Read the sources yourself.
It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… consideration should be taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.
I was recently directed to Jon Zens’ article “Is There a Covenant of Grace?” as an outline and defense of NCT’s rejection of covenant theology. There is much to appreciate in Zens’ article. I think the majority of his criticism is very good and needs to be heard, particularly the tensions in covenantal paedobaptism and the lack of sensitivity to the progress of revelation. However, the article suffers from a couple of key problems. The first is Zens’ handling of the law. His comparison between the law of Moses and the law of Christ is inadequate and misleading. Interacting with this point is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say the contrast in 2 Cor 3 is between the law written outward on stone and the law written inward on hearts. The difference is not the content of the law.
But Zens’ other problem, and one that is even more foundational to the entire thesis of his article, is that he fails to distinguish different strains of covenant theology. He is guilty of lumping them all together and then dismissing them all by critiquing only one. Zens’ statement
While Dispensationalism stresses the diversity of God’s dealings with men in different eras of history, Covenant Theology has emphasized “one” covenant of grace. The historical covenants are seen as just different administrations of the “covenant of grace.” Are these two approaches the only two alternatives? Historically, during the last hundred years, the answer has been “Yes”
is historically false. Zens appears to be ignorant of the history of covenant theology, particularly
- the version(s) of covenant theology rejected by WCF (see In Defense of Moses)
- Owen’s, and thus Savoy’s, explicit rejection of the “two administrations, one covenant” view
- the LBC’s adoption and further reform of Savoy’s Ch 7 (see a tabular comparison of these confessions here)
I do not entirely blame Zens for not being aware of the important differences amongst covenant theology. Many Reformed Baptists seem unaware of the history of their own confession as well. Because Sam Waldron’s Exposition of the LBC is the only one in print, many look to such a book for an explanation of Ch 7 of the LBC . However, Waldron personally disagrees with Owen’s formulation of covenant theology (though he does not acknowledge it is Owen he is disagreeing with) and instead adopts a slightly modified version of John Murray’s covenant theology (ie one covenant, various administrations). Waldron is not the only one who espouses his view and his book is certainly not the only reason other Reformed Baptists hold this view, but I can’t help but think his book, and others written by Reformed Baptists, have led to some confusion regarding historic debate over covenant theology, and the progress that the LBC represents in that debate.
At some later point I hope to write a post interacting with Waldron’s chapter and showing an alternative understanding. But for now I hope to simply demonstrate that the view Zens has critiqued is not the only view of covenant theology and that the “two administrations, one covenant” is not a necessary consequence of covenant theology.
One of the best treatments of this issue, in my opinion, is John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13 (which has been made available from RBAP, along with Nehemiah Coxe’s work, in the volume “Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ” and is also available online here and here). Believe it or not, Owen makes some of the same arguments that Zens does. Owen rejects the “two administrations, one covenant” view as unbiblical. Here is the way he put it:
The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…
…Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.
Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.
I highly encourage everyone to read Owen’s work. It is a wonderful 150 page exercise in applying deductive reasoning to the axiom of Scripture (btw, logic is something NCT needs to become more acquainted with). I’m in the process of writing an interactive outline of his argumentation that I will hopefully be able to provide online. In my opinion, I see no reason to entertain NCT until its advocates deal honestly and adequately with the history of covenant theology, particularly John Owen.
Linking Owen’s development to the LBC is a helpful forward to the Coxe/Owen volume. In it, James Renihan comments:
The reader will notice that Coxe, in the preface to his Discourse, indicates that he was preparing materials for a subsequent volume to be written on the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, but was “happily prevented” by the publication of Owen’s volume on Hebrews chapter 8. So far as the Baptist Nehemiah Coxe was concerned, John Owen’s work on this part of Hebrews clearly articulated the things that Coxe himself would have said (and he recognized that Owen said them better as well). This does not mean Coxe endorsed every jot and tittle of Owen’s work, but simply indicates the massive agreement between the two. Owen, for his own part, exegetically demonstrates that the New Covenant is profoundly different from the Old – it is characteristically new. For Coxe (it must be remembered that he is the most likely candidate to have served as editor of the Second London Baptist Confession of 1677/1689 [he died shortly before it was signed]), and confessional Reformed Baptists who agree with his theology, Owen’s emphasis on the newness of the New Covenant is a helpful step forward in the discussion.
So, again, until NCT interacts competently and adequately with John Owen, I see no reason to entertain their rejection of covenant theology.
I ran across a quote from Hodge a while ago and have been trying to track down the article ever since. I finally found it and wanted to share some snippets from it. [Update: I finally found it online as well in Hodge's book "Church Polity"] Hodge’s essay in the Princeton Review, Oct 1853 was his response to threat from the Papists. I wish I had a bit more of the historical background, but here is how Thomas Curtis prefaces it: “The Old School Presbyterians began to be attacked by the Episcopalians, who plead the analogy of circumcision and of the ancient Jewish church in favor of admitting good and bad into Christian churches” (Thomas Fenner Curtis)
Hodge refutes the arguments by clarifying what it means for the NT church to be a church of believers, and in so doing raises some interesting consequences.
The Visibility of the Church
Our view of the attributes of the Church is of necessity determined by our view of its nature.
The Romanists argued that the church is the same in nature as an earthly kingdom. Hodge argued it is a spiritual kingdom. He said:
…if the Church is the coetus sanctorum, the company of believers; if it is the body of Christ, and if his body consists of those, and of those only, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, then the Church is visible only in the sense in which believers are visible.
He says the Church is visible in so much as:
(1) “it consists of men and women, in distinction from disembodied spirits or angels.”
(2) “Its members manifest their faith by good works. The fact they are members of Christ’s body becomes notorious… Wherever there are true believers, there is the true Church; and wherever such believers confess their faith, and illustrate it by a holy life, there the Church is visible.”
(3) “…believers are, by their “effectual calling,” separated from the world… The true Church is visible throughout the world, not as an organization, not as an external society [ie a "church" of believers and unbelievers], but as the living body of Christ; as a set of men distinguished from others as true Christians… The Church, in this sense, is a city set on a hill… How unfounded, then, is the objection that the Church, the body of Christ, is a chimera, a Platonic idea, unless it is, in its essential nature, a visible society, like the kingdom of England or Republic of Switzerland!
(4) “The true Church is visible in the external Church, just as the soul is visible in the body… So the external Church, as embracing all who profess the true religion – with their various organizations, their confessions of the truth, their temples, and their Christian worship – make it apparent that the true Church, the body of Christ, exists, and where it is. These are not the Church, any more than the body is the soul; but they are its manifestations, and its residence.”
If all those in every age who professed belief were true believers, then there would be no need of the visible/invisible distinction. However,
We know that in every subsequent [to the apostolic] age, the great majority of those who have been baptized in the name of Christ, and who call themselves Christians, and who are included in the external organization of his followers, are not true Christians. This external society, therefore, is not a company of believers; it is not the Church which is Christ’s body; the attributes and promises of the Church do not belong to it. It is not that living temple built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets as an habitation of God, through the Spirit. It is not the bride of Christ, for which he died, and which he cleanses with the washing of regeneration… In short, the external society is not the Church. The two are not identical, commensurate, and conterminous, so that he who is a member of the one is a member of the other, and he who is excommunicated from the one is cut off from the other…
If, then, the Church is the body of Christ; if a man becomes a member of that body by faith; if multitudes of those who profess in baptism the true religion, are not believers, then it is just as certain that the external body consisting of the baptized is not the Church, as that a man’s calling himself a Christian does not make him a Christian.
Hodge then appeals to Protestants to steer clear of Rome’s logic:
If that is so [the Church is an external organization], then such organization is the Church; then, as the Church is holy, the body and bride of Christ, the temple and family of God, all members of that organization are holy, members of Christ’s body, and partakers of his life… Then, moreover, as Christ saves all the members of his body and none other, he saves all included in this external organization, and consigns to eternal death all out of it… It becomes those who call themselves Protestants, to look these consequences in the face, before they join the Papists and Puseyites in ridiculing the idea of a Church composed exclusively of believers, and insist that the body to which the attributes and promises of the Church belong, is the visible organization of professing Christians.
Finally, Hodge addres “the most plausible argument of Romanists: the analogy of the old dispensation.”
That the Church is a visible society, consisting of the professors of the true religion, as distinguished from the body of true believers, known only to God, is plain, they say, because under the old dispensation it was such a society, embracing all the descendants of Abraham who professed the true religion, and received the sign of circumcision… The Church exists as an external society now as it did then; what once belonged to the commonwealth of Israel, now belongs to the visible Church. As union with the commonwealth of Israel was necessary to salvation then, so union with the visible Church was necessary to salvation now. And as subjection to the priesthood, and especially to the high-priest, was necessary to union with Israel then, so submission to the regular ministry, and especially to the Pope, is necessary to union with the Church now. Such is the favourite argument of Romanists; and such, (striking out illogically the last clause, which requires subjection to prelates, or the Pope) we are sorry to say is the argument of some Protestants, and even of some Presbyterians.
The fallacy of this whole argument lies in the false assumption, that the external Israel was the true Church… The attributes, promises, prerogatives of the one, were not those of the other. [If this is true] we must admit that the true Church rejected and crucified Christ; for he was rejected by the external Israel, by the Sanhedrin… Paul avoids this fatal conclusion by denying that the external Church is, as such, the true Church, or that the promises made to the latter were made to the former.
It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, his natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external, visible community. By the other, his spiritual descendants were constituted a Church. The parties to the former covenant were God and the nation; to the other, God and his true people. The promises of the national covenant were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant, (i.e. of the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant were circumcision and obedience to the law; the condition of the latter was, is, and ever has been, faith in the Messiah as the seed of the woman, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, and the commonwealth founded on the one with the Church founded on the other.
When Christ came “the commonwealth” was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The Church remained. There was no external covenant, nor promises of external blessings, on condition of external rites and subjection. There was a spiritual society with spiritual promises, on the condition of faith in Christ. In no part of the New Testament is any other condition of membership in the Church prescribed than that contained in the answer of Philip to the eunuch who desired baptism: “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts viii. 37)
So much for the unity of the covenants. And so much for paedobaptism founded upon circumcision.
**This posts represents my attempt to work out my understanding of these issues, and since its writing nearly 3 years ago my views have matured and been refined a little (at least I hope). Please see my posts in the covenants category. I have not arrived and would greatly appreciated helpful criticism**
I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.
III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.
IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.
V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.
VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.
Until recently, my understanding of covenant theology was largely limited to it’s contrast with dispensationalism. I was shown how the church is the true Israel of God, that the church is not a parenthesis between God’s real ultimate plan for the physical descendants of Abraham and how anyone who has ever been saved, from Adam to Abraham, to Moses, to David, was saved by faith in the work of Jesus Christ.
I saw that national Israel was a shadow, a type of the church. Reading Ezekial 36 and Jeremiah 31, I saw how God had saved the true Israel (Adam and Abraham and Moses and David) by replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh, by writing his law on their hearts, and by forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more. In essence, I saw how Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David were members of the New Covenant, the only covenant of which Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest.
But as I began studying covenant theology, I became greatly confused as I learned that my understanding of covenant theology was not in fact what is commonly understood as covenant theology.
For example, I began reading how national Israel was not a type of the church. National Israel actually was the church, just under a previous dispensation or administration. The argument being that God has always saved man through the Covenant of Grace and that national Israel, the Mosaic covenant, was a dispensation or administration of that one single Covenant of Grace.
Several months ago I read John Reisinger’s Abraham’s Four Seeds. One thing that stuck out, that I found frustrating, was Reisinger’s insistence that covenant theology identifies national Israel with the church. I thought that was a terrible mis-characterization of covenant theology. I didn’t believe that and I believed covenant theology. Well, now that I have actually started to study covenant theology I realize that he was right. While I don’t agree with other things in the book, I do find myself in agreement with this oft-repeated quote:
Dispensationalism cannot get Israel and the church together in any sense whatsoever, and Covenant Theology cannot get them apart.
Is the New Covenant Eternal?
Likewise, I was shocked to read Samuel Waldron’s Exposition of the London Baptist Confession and read that this single overarching Covenant of Grace is not, in fact, the same thing as the New Covenant. The New Covenant, he argues, was not inaugurated until the advent of Christ. Thus the New Covenant (as described in Jeremiah 31) is only a particular dispensation or administration of the Covenant of Grace.
James White seems to agree with this view when he says:
So, if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it. It is an exhaustive demonstration of grace, for all in the New Covenant experience all that is inherent in
the covenant in the blood of the Son of God….
…Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new.
So the Old Covenant was salvific, it just was not salvific for everyone in it. The newness of the New Covenant is not that it saves, but that it saves all.
Did the Mosaic Covenant Save?
I do not believe that the Mosaic Covenant eternally saved anyone. I do not believe it was ever intended to. Hebrews 10:4 notes that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But if the Mosaic Covenant did not save anyone and if the sacrificial system it established did not take away any sins, what was the point? Hebrews 9:13-14 explains:
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctifyfor the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify ourconscience from dead works to serve the living God.
The sacrifices of the Old Covenant purified the flesh of the Israelites. That was it’s purpose. It was never intended to purify their souls because it could not. To help explain what I am saying, it is helpful to understand the debate about “republication.”
Basically, the proponents of republication claim that the Mosaic Covenant was a republication of the Covenant of Works. This is more than saying it is simply a republication of the law, for most all agree that the Decalogue was originally written on Adam’s heart and is not a new set of laws. Beyond saying it is a republication of the laws of the Covenant of Works, it says it is a republication of the Covenant of Works itself, the essential aspect being the re-establishment of a works based principle. For a good, short introduction to this issue, read R. Scott Clark’s 3-part blog post Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works.
Opponents to this view rightly object that since Adam’s fall, there is no hope for man to save himself by work. Even if, hypothetically, a man could perfectly obey the law, he is still under Adam’s federal headship, and thus he is still legally condemned. So God cannot be reinstating the possibility for man to save himself.
Since Adam failed the probationary test we cannot now fulfill the requirements of this covenant and since according to Romans 5 the curse of this failure continues in us since Adam was our covenantal head it would therefore not make sense that God would put us again under a covenant which had been broken by Adam’s disobedience (and our disobedience in Adam).
Covenant of Grace and the Mosaic Law
These men say that the Mosaic Covenant is not a covenant of works. The law is not given as a condition for man, but rather, as a guide to show the redeemed how to live. The prologue to the law in Deuteronomy 5 states: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus the law is given to an already redeemed people to show them how to live, thus the Mosaic Covenant is all of grace. Or so the argument goes.
But the language of the Mosaic Covenant is clearly conditional. In Deuteronomy 27:26 we read “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” And Leviticus 18:5 states “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”
Copies and Shadows
So is the Mosaic Covenant a re-publication of the Covenant of Works or not? Well… not exactly. It is clearly a conditional covenant based upon works, but the cursing and blessing is not exactly the same. Deuteronomy 5 states:
32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.
And Deuteronomy 11:
8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, 9 and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The author of Hebrews notes that the sacrificial system in Israel is a copy and a shadow of the substance, which is Christ.
Hebrews 8:4 …there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
In the same way, the Mosaic Covenant is a copy of the Covenant of Works with Adam. If Adam broke his covenant of works, he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. So to, if the nation of Israel broke it’s covenant of works, it would be expelled, or vomited from the Promised Land. And here is precisely where things begin to come into focus. Much of the covenant theology that I have read ignores the typical aspect of the Old Covenant and thus greatly misunderstands it (IMO). The entire covenant was a type, and it was not in any way part of the Covenant of Grace.
No Grace in the Mosaic Covenant?
Now, the Mosaic Covenant was not a covenant of pure works. For as soon as it was given, Moses found the Israelites worshiping an idol. The Israelites continued to break the covenant, yet they were not immediately expelled. Why? Because of the covenant that God made with Abraham. Specifically, the covenant that Christ would come from his seed (Galatians 3:15-18). Thus to expel the Israelites, to disperse them and to kill them, God would have to break his covenant with Abraham.
So how can God overlook violations of his covenant with Israel over their land? By a sacrificial system. Thus the priesthood is established and sacrifices offered as a means of purifying the flesh. It was a temporal sacrifice, that resulted in a temporal forgiveness of a temporal covenant. The entire sacrificial system of Israel was never intended to atone for anyone’s eternal damnation. Rather, it was intended to atone for their physical expulsion from the Promised Land, which is a type of the Heavenly Promised Land. And thus Hebrews begins to make much more sense:
9:23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
But What of Abraham?
Then how are we to view God’s covenant with Abraham? The Mosaic Covenant is clearly related to the Abrahamic Covenant. The previously quoted passage from Deuteronomy says “that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring.” How can we then say that the promise that God made with Abraham is conditional and based on works? That would destroy the Covenant of Grace completely.
The answer lies in letting the New Testament, God’s fullest revelation, interpret the Old.
Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you,brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
Go back and read that a few times. Paul says there are two covenants. He says he is speaking allegorically, but it is not the covenants that are allegorical, but the metaphorical use of the mothers. His mention of two covenants is literal. There were two covenants with Abraham: one according to the flesh, which is national Israel, the other according to the promise, which is spiritual Israel. And that is precisely why Charles Hodge can say:
“It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one his natural descendants through Isaac, were constituted a commonwealth— an external community; by the other his spiritual descendants were constituted into a church, [invisible of course, since, at that time, the only formal organization was that of the law.] The parties to the former covenant, were God, and the nation; to the other, God, and his true people. The promises of the national covenant, were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant (i.e. the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, as reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant [the old] were circumcision, and obedience to the law; the conditions of the other were, and ever have been, faith in the Messiah, as ‘the seed of the woman,’ the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, [that is, the old covenant with the new] and the commonwealth founded on the one, with the church founded on the other. When Christ came, the commonwealth was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The church [now made visible] remained. There was no external covenant, nor promise of external ‘blessings, on condition of external rites, and subjection. There was a spiritual society, with spiritual promises, on condition of faith in Christ.” “The church is, therefore, in its essential nature, a company of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership.
Princeton Review, October 1853 (editorial comments by R. B. C. Howell The Covenants)
Does this leave me outside the bounds of orthodoxy? Hardly. The Bible is to be our test of orthodoxy and if a tradition is found to be outside the bounds of the Bible we should not be afraid to set it aside. Yet my view is not novel. It is not unconfessional. In contrast to the WCF’s view of the Covenant of Grace, the Baptist Brethren in London saw the consistent glory of the Covenant of Grace:
1._____ The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
( Luke 17:10; Job 35:7,8 )
2._____ Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
( Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 21; Romans 8:3; Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; John 6:44, 45; Psalms 110:3 )
3._____ This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
( Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11;6, 13; Romans 4:1, 2, &c.; Acts 4:12; John 8:56 )
Is WCF “Dispensational” ?
The Mosaic Covenant is not part of the Covenant of Grace. To say they are one and the same necessitates that God has worked differently throughout history, because those two covenants are fundamentally different. Patrick Ramsey has a helpful post here where he argues the same thing (though with a different conclusion). He demonstrates that one cannot affirm any kind of works principle in the Mosaic covenant while still maintaining its position in the Covenant of Grace. The “substance” or “essence” of the two are different and thus if one maintains that the Mosaic Covenant was a “dispensation” of the Covenant of Grace, they must admit that God’s work of salvation was different in “substance” or “essence” for Israel.
I recently stumbled upon an interesting observation in this regard. In his book “The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a Comparative Analysis” Guy Waters notes the following:
In October 2001, Steve Schlissel delivered a controversial address at Redeemer College (Ancaster, Ontario), “More than Before: The Necessity of Covenant Consciousness.”…In this address, Schlissel argued for a couple of things that would characterize his subsequent addresses and that would be paralleled in other FV pieces. First, Schlissel charged the Reformed tradition with succumbing to dispensationalism, to “fundamentalistic” and “baptistic” theologies. The Reformed, he argued, had unwittingly followed Luther’s bifurcation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In so doing, the Reformed had neglected the genius of their key biblical insight: covenant. Schlissel asked, then, “What’s new about the New Testament? Grace? NO. Faith? NO. Christ? NO. The new thing about the New Testament is Gentiles are incorporated into Israel. THAT IS IT.”
Schlissel then charges on to implement the works principle inherent in the Mosaic Covenant into the New Covenant by saying Christians must remain faithful to their covenant obligations – and he destroys the gospel in the process. But the interesting point is that he recognizes this inconsistency in popular covenant theology. He calls it dispensational because it does not consistently apply the Mosaic principles to the New Covenant.
For Further Reading:
- Works in the Mosaic Covenant: A Survey of Major Covenant Theologians : Lee Irons (especially read intro, conclusion, and section on John Owen)
- Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant : Mark W. Karlberg (read intro & conclusion)
- The Covenants : R. B. C. Howell (second president of the SBC)
- The Divine Covenants : A. W. Pink
- Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ : Nehemiah Coxe & John Owen
- The Abrahamic Covenant and Baptism : William Payne
- Southern Baptist Founders Conference 2005 Sermons : Several lectures dealing with baptist covenant theology
- John Owen on the Covenants
- The Fatal Flaw in the Theology Behind Infant Baptism : Jeffrey D. Johnson