Home > old covenant, OPC Republication Report > John Cotton: Proponent of the “Mixed Covenant” View?

John Cotton: Proponent of the “Mixed Covenant” View?

The OPC Report on Republication mentions that they were unable to find any historical examples of “View 3: A Mixed Covenant” which it describes as “First, the moral law alone was presented to Israel, which is said to contain in substance a perfect covenant of works… The law was then issued a second time, but with moderation, promising pardon to the penitent, and thus in substance offering a covenant of grace…”

It would appear that John Cotton’s pivotal 1636 sermon in Salem, which sparked a revival in New England, is an example of this view. He distinguishes between the covenant made at Horeb and the covenant made at Moab. Cotton says

The Lord doth profess unto them all that should keep Covenant, That they should Live by keeping Covenant. And this is the Grand and Principle Promise wraping up all other, 18.5. And the Apostle doth Interpret the meaning of that Promise: Gal. 3.12. The Law is not of faith, but the man that doth these things shall Live in them: and this is the Promise of Life which God giveth to those that keep Covenant…

They yield themselves to be accursed of God, if they shall not keep that Covenant; and therefore when it was pronounced, Cursed is e|very one that continueth not in all things that are writ|ten in the Law to do them, all the People did say, Amen; and so their faith lay upon a curse: This is the Old Covenant that God made with his People, and is called a Covenant of Works; the Lord requireth Righteousness and Works, He Promi|seth Life to their Works, and they say, Amen, to enter into a curse. Now this was a temporal Covenant; this my Covenant they brake, saith the Lord; and they did quickly turn aside from the wayes of the Lord, and therefore Moses when he cometh and seeth the Calf which they had made, he brake the Tables of the Covenant…

Now for the Covenant that is Everlasting▪ we may observe therein also four acts of God towards his People… In Jesus Christ He doth give Everlasting Communion with Him. Through Christ He will take away the Stony heart, and give a heart of flesh…
To those that do Apostate from it: Heb. 10.29. Of how much sorer Punishment shall they be thought worthy of who have trodden under foot the Son of God, and have counted the blood of the Covenant, where|with they were sanctified, an unholy thing, & have done despite unto the Spirit of Grace. This Covenant is that which is spoken of, Deut. 29.1. beside the Covenant made in Mount Horeb: and to this Covenant belongeth a heavy curse: Deut. 30.17, 18. If thy heart turn away that thou wilt not bear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them, I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your dayes upon the Land whither thou passest over Jordan to possess it. And that it is the Covenant of Grace, we may perceive by comparing, Deut. 30. 11. to the 14. with, 16.6. So that we may see the Lord doth threaten a heavy curse to fall upon them that transgress this Covenant…

Now, this is the nature of the comfort of an Everlasting Cove|nant, tho’ we fail in Families, and in Churches, yet if Christ be ours, the Everlasting Covenant is ours. Indeed when Moses came and saw the Israelites worshipping the golden Calf, Exod. 32.19. because he saw they had broken Covenant with God, therefore he brake the Tables of the Covenant; to shew the Lord would have no fellowship with them; and if the Covenant had not been renewed, they had perished.

Cotton then applied the point to the question of local church covenants.

The Use of this point in the first Place, may shew us from hence, a ground of that which some of us (yet but few) saw the truth of, in our Native Country, namely the Necessity of a Church Covenant to the Institution of a Church, Come, and let us joyn our selves to the Lord: That which doth make a People a joyned People with God, that doth make a Church: What is that? The Covenant of Grace doth make a People▪ a joyned People with God, and therefore a Church of God; and therefore you shall find that when the Lord Establishes Israel for a Church unto Himself. He maketh this Covenant: not only that in Mount Hareb, but He doth make another Covenant with them in the Plains of Deut. 29 10, 17. And so by this means they come to be established to be a Church unto God.”

Cotton then blasted the Separatist church in Salem for making their local church covenant a covenant of works because they required members to denounce the Church of England and meet other requirements (such as moral reformation and behavior) beyond mere faith in Christ.

USE. II. In the Second Place, Let me pro|voke my Self, and all my Brethren, and all the Churches to Consider, What kind of Covenant you have entred, or will enter into: if you shall come hither into this Country, and shall here confess your Sins, that you have prophaned the Name of God withal, if you take Christ for your King, and Priest & Prophet, and if you shall profess to walk in all his ways, this may all be but a Covenant of works.

The Elders of the Church propound it, Will you renounce all your Sinful Pollutions? Will you keep Covenant? And enter into a Cove|nant with the Church, and take Christ, and pro|mise to walk after all God’s Ordinances? You Answer, All this we will do; all this is no more than the Old Covenant: For you are much de|ceived if you think there was no speech of Christ in the Covenant of works. What were the Ce|remonies but shadows of Christ? What was the laying the hand on the head of the Sacrifice, but the laying hold upon Christ Jesus? What was the blood of the Sacrifice? Was it not the blood of Christ? And what was the Atonement by that blood? Was it not the Atonement which is by Christ? All the understanding Israelites did see that these things did point at Christ. Now, if we do enter into a Covenant to keep the Or|dinances of the Law, of the Gospel, and of the Civil State, (for that was the tripartive Covenant) all this may be but a Covenant of Works. What then must we do? We must fall down before the Lord in our Spirits, and profess our selves insuf|ficient to keep any Covenant, and profess our selves unworthy that the Lord should keep any Covenant with us; as to say, Lord! who am I? Or what is my Fathers house, that the Lord should ever look upon such a poor Soul as I am? What doth the Church lay hold upon duties, and there’s an end? No, no, There are no true Servants of Jesus Christ, but they must be drawn out of themselves by a Spirit of Bondage, and unto Christ by a Spirit of Poverty; and then a Soul seeth there is much in Christ, but he cannot hope there is any thing for him: Now the Lord doth draw a man on to Christ Jesus, and calleth him to believe in Christ, but yet he is not able to reach Him. Now then, if the Lord draw the Soul to depend upon Christ, and shall go forth, and not undertake any thing in his own Strength; so you will keep it by the Strength of the Lord also; now the Lord will have Peace with you, and the gates of Hell shall never prevail against you. Build a Church up|on any other foundation but Faith, and the pro|fession of Faith, and it will break into manifold distempers.

The Separatists insisted that any true Christian must declare full separation from the Church of England because the Church of England had defiled herself by not practicing church discipline. They thereby made their separation the grounds of their cleanness and their inclusion in the church. Cotton concluded:

So in case the Church do tolerate these, that do defile them|selves with any Sinful Pollution, do not I make my self Unclean now by touching this Church?… You see the Church lye in Sin, you will not touch her, then you Sin against her, and have broken your Covenant, Will you suffer your Brother’s Ox to lye in the Mire?… I Pray you therefore consider it: I am marvellously afraid of Separation from Churches upon any breach of duty; they who do Separate for such causes, think they are sprinkled with the water of Separation: but believe it, they are Separa|ted from Christ Jesus for ever, if they so live and so dye. Therefore if you belong to Christ, He will shew you it is not the water of Separa|tion that will serve your turn, but getting Christ Jesus, and sitting closer to Him, and to your Brethren, by Admonishing and Reproving them, if you see them defiled. This will keep you clean, and your hearts clean, and your Souls comfortable: That the Lord hath made an Everlasting Covenant with you that shall never be Forgotten.

For more on the context, see Edmund S. Morgan’s extremely helpful Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea.

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  1. markmcculley
    October 24, 2016 at 9:25 am

    I have always wondered how John Cotton can, on the one hand, be a congregationist with what sometimes sound like an “antinomian” sense of individual assurance in Christ, but then on the other hand, so very anti-separatist, not only in the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson but also in his harsh conclusion (quoted above) that separatists have cut themselves off from Christ. Cotton—“Will you suffer your Brother’s Ox to lye in the Mire?… I am marvellously afraid of Separation from Churches upon any breach of duty; they who do Separate for such causes, think they are sprinkled with the water of Separation: bu…they are Separa|ted from Christ Jesus for ever, if they so live and so dye”

    I don’t know what to think. Is there a change of mind from to the younger to the older Cotton? Or is this case of somebody taking a stand against those actually closest to their own position, because of a relatively minor difference?

    It seems to me that some congregationalists are less separatists than many Presbyterians. It also seems that some of those known as almost “antinomians” have such a sense of certainly about what legalism looks like that they become quite legalistic about the collective conscience of other people. https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/neonomian-presbyterians-vs-antinomian-congregationalists/

    John Cotton—they do not deny magistrates, nor predestination, nor original, sin, nor maintain free-will in conversion, nor apostacy from grace ; but only deny the lawful use of the baptism of children, because it wanteth a word of commandment and example, from the Scripture. And I am bound in christian love to believe, that they who yield so far, do it out of conscience, as following the example of the apostle, who professed of himself and his followers, We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. But yet I believe withal, that it is not out of love to the truth that Satan yieldeth so much, but rather out of another ground, and for a worse end. He knoweth that now, by the good hand of God, they are set upon purity and reformation; and now to plead against the baptism of children upon any of those Arminian and Popish grounds, as those above named, Satan knoweth they would be rejected. He now pleadeth no other arguments in these times of reformation, than may be urged from a main principle of reformation, to wit, That no duty of God’s worship, nor any ordinance of religion, is to be administered in his church, but such as hath a just warrant from the word of God. And by urging this argument against the baptism of children, Satan transformeth himself into an angel of light.”*

    * Cotton on baptism, 1647, p. 3

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    • October 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      I haven’t studied Cotton enough to comment, but Edmund S. Morgan does note definite change/progression in different elements of his thought. I highly recommend Visible Saints if you haven’t read it. He gets into a lot of detail about Separatism vs Congregationalism. I need to re-read it again.

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  2. markmcculley
    October 24, 2016 at 9:30 am

    John Cotton writes: “We must be good trees before we can bring forth good fruit. If then closing with Christ be a good fruit, we must be good trees before we can bring it forth. And how can we be good trees, before we be engrafted into Christ? We must look for it in Aristotle, for it is not revealed in the gospel of Christ?”

    p 43, A Faire and Easy Way to Heaven, William Stoever, 1978

    The antagonism of Mark Jones to John Cotton keeps me very sympathetic to John Cotton. In his introduction to the second edition of Gaffin’s By Faith, not by Sight, Mark Jones suggests that anybody who has a different order of salvation than Gaffin is antinomian.

    Mark Jones– “The position that faith followed imputation was not typical of Reformed thought in his day but rather was associated with antinomianism….Any view that posits faith as a consequence of imputation (John Cotton) is not the typical Reformed position….The Lutheran view that justification precedes sanctification..ends up attributing to justification a renovative transformative element.”

    Mark McCulley—yes, that’s the same accusation which Tipton makes, when he contrasts Lutherans with the Reformed even in matter of justification. . Mark Jones is dogmatic that “union” precedes imputation, and that “faith” precedes “union”. Does that not end up attributing to “union” a renovative transformative element? Does that not end up attributing to “faith” a renovative transformative element? Is the atonement imputed to us on the basis of the Spirit’s work of giving us faith?

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    • October 24, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Missing from Jones’ discussion is Owen’s New Covenant as legal/mystical union that precedes faith. Tipton does have valid points about the Lutheran view compared with Horton, etc. I agree with them that union precedes imputation, but it also precedes faith.

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    • October 24, 2016 at 1:49 pm

      Do you know the original source of Cotton’s quote on closing with Christ?

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