A couple of months ago I came across a video from Pastor Patrick Hines (PCA), host of The Protestant Witness, addressing the issue of baptism. He was articulating the Presbyterian position in what seemed like an odd way. He was very adamant that no one was born into the Covenant of Grace. I’ve learned not to assume anything about an individual Presbyterian’s covenant theology but to simply take them on their own terms – in this case what appeared to be a rejection of the internal/external covenant membership distinction. I created a video in response explaining how that was not the historic Presbyterian position and addressing some of his other points as well. Turns out I misunderstood him (and therefore wasted my time, his time, and the time of anyone who watched my response). Because other reformed baptists have misunderstood him in the past, he was simply avoiding the external covenant membership language altogether. So in an attempt not to confuse some reformed baptists, he wound up confusing other reformed baptists 🙂 I’m sure that was frustrating for him and I’m sorry to have added to the frustration.
Because so much time had been wasted on a misunderstanding that could have been resolved in :30 in a discussion, I was reluctant to continue a video back and forth. Thankfully Semper Reformanda Radio asked if Patrick and I wanted to discuss the issue on a podcast instead. It took a while to get it scheduled, but we recorded it last week. You can find it here: SRR 90 A Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian Debate
Below are some further comments on the discussion.
Hines’ Opening Statement
Acts 7:38 – ἐκκλησία (ekklhsia)
The English word “church” has an exclusively religious meaning. It really refers exclusively to the body of Christ. The Greek does not. It is a secular word used by Paul to refer to the body of Christ. Strong’s defines it as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” On Acts 7:38, the NET Bible notes “This term, ἐκκλησία (ekklhsia), is a secular use of the term that came to mean “church” in the epistles. Here a reference to an assembly is all that is intended.” As I mentioned in the podcast, there is certainly a type/antitype relationship – but the mere use of the word ἐκκλησία does not entail that Israel was the Church.
The Gospel was preached to Abraham
Absolutely. That does not mean the Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace. It means the Abrahamic Covenant revealed something about the gospel to Abraham.
John the Baptist said you can’t be born into the Abrahamic Covenant
No, John was unpacking the typology of Abraham’s offspring. He was warning of the coming end of the Old Covenant. “The axe is laid to the root” of the privilege of Abraham’s physical offspring (see Keach). At the final end of the Old Covenant, the only relationship to father Abraham that would matter was faith. John was not denying that the Abrahamic Covenant was made with Abraham’s natural offspring.
The Gen 15 land promise applies today to believers and their children, because the land promise is heaven
This blending of type and antitype is a basic problem with paedobaptism. The land of Canaan was not heaven. It was a type of heaven. The type is not the thing typified. The land of Canaan was promised to Abraham’s natural offspring (upon the condition of obedience to Mosaic law). Yes, it typified heaven promised to Abraham’s spiritual offspring. But those are two different things (see here). Note that any strangers who wished to be circumcised and live as a native of the land still could not possess/own any land in perpetuity because it was not promised to Gentiles who had faith. It was promised to Abraham’s natural offspring.
Heb 6:17 proves the Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace
No, it proves that God’s promise(s) to Abraham were unchangeable. God fulfilled both promises (that numerous natural offspring would inherit the land of Canaan and that the promised Messiah would be born from Abraham to bless all nations). That doesn’t mean the Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.
The Abrahamic Covenant can’t be the Old Covenant because of Heb 8:13
Insofar as the Mosaic Covenant was an elaboration/addendum/confirmation of the first Abrahamic promise (that numerous offspring would inherit the land of Canaan), both the Mosaic Covenant and the first Abrahamic promise comprise the Old Covenant (epitomized by the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai). Abraham’s natural offspring’s tenure in the promised land governed by Mosaic law grew old and vanished away, as Heb 8:13 said it would.
Gal 3 says the Abrahamic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace
Gal 4:21ff says the Abrahamic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace
No, the passage is contrasting the Old and the New covenants, both of which flow from God’s promises to Abraham (see here).
The Credobaptist position argues for a radical termination of the household principle for the church
This is merely begging the question.
If Abraham thought like a baptist, he’d never circumcise his children
Again, that’s begging the question.
Acts 2 simply restates Gen 17
First, Abraham’s slaves are not equivalent to “those who are far off.” The fact that Pastor Hines seeks to equate the two is a good indication of how far the text has to be stretched.
Second, the paedobaptist argument for internal/external covenant membership is based on Romans 9:6-8 wherein it is argued that only the elect offspring of believers are actually children of the Abrahamic promise. Recognizing the tension/contradiction in claiming that the Gen 17 promise is both conditionally to all the offspring and unconditionally to the elect offspring, Meredith Kline said that baptism should not be argued for on the basis of the Abrahamic promise (see here and here).
Finally, the Gen 17:7-8 promise was made to Israel according to the flesh and was fulfilled when God brought them out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan where he dwelt with them as their king and established a unique form of worship distinct from all other nations. See Ex. 2:24-25; 6:6-7; 19:4-6; Ezek 16:8; Deut 4:32-40; 29:10-13; Ps. 147:19-20; Amos 3:1-2; Hosea 1:9. It was typological of God’s promise concerning Abraham’s spiritual descendants. For an elaboration, see here.
The Old Covenant had church discipline just like the New Covenant
Being stoned to death is not the same thing as being excommunicated. Rather, it highlights the difference between the nation of Israel and the church. The death penalty was a covenant curse according to the condition of Lev 18:5. Excommunication is not. Those who committed a sin worthy of stoning died without mercy (Heb 10:28). Those in the church who commit a sin worthy of excommunication are given abundant mercy. Yes, Paul applied Israel’s civil law concerning stoning to the church. The fact that he applied a civil law to the church indicates the typological relationship between Israel and the church, not the identity of Israel and the church. For more, see here.
Hines’ point was to try to argue that the condition for membership in Israel was the same as the condition for membership in the church: an individual who professes saving faith in Christ, along with their immediate offspring. However, that was never the condition for being part of Israel. Profession of saving faith in Christ was never a requirement. Being an offspring of Abraham (through Isaac and Jacob) was. And even the remotest offspring of Abraham received a right (and obligation) to circumcision directly from his connection to Abraham, not because of his immediate parents’ profession of saving faith. This brings up very interesting and very significant differences between modern American Presbyterians and historic Presbyterians. They denied that a profession of saving faith was a requirement for church membership (though many argued it was a requirement for participating in the Lord’s Supper). That was a Independent/Congregationalist view. They also argued that the descendants of believers may be baptized even if their parents were wicked. See here and here as well.
James White doesn’t think Hebrews teaches that Abraham was in the New Covenant
Commenting on Hebrews 8:10, Calvin said “There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.” On 8:6 Owen said “The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant… this new covenant of grace was extant and effectual under the old testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof, and the mediation of Christ therein.” Augustine explained “These pertain to the new testament [covenant], are the children of promise, and are regenerated by God the Father and a free mother. Of this kind were all the righteous men of old, and Moses himself, the minister of the old testament, the heir of the new.” John Frame said “Everyone who has ever been saved has been saved through the new covenant in Christ. Everyone who is saved receives a new heart, a heart of obedience, through the new covenant work of Christ… the efficacy of the New Covenant, unlike that of previous covenants, extends to God’s elect prior to Jesus’ atonement. When believers in the Old Testament experienced “circumcision of the heart,” or when they were Jews “inwardly,” they were partaking of the power of the New Covenant.”
Hebrews 9:16 refutes the idea that OT saints were saved by the New Covenant
No more than 9:15 refutes the idea that the OT saints were saved by the blood of Christ.
The Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants
The original reformed argument for paedobaptism was that the Old and New Covenants were one and the same. Bullinger’s 8th sermon in The Decades is titled “OF THE USE OR EFFECT OF THE LAW OF GOD AND OF THE FULFILLING AND ABROGATING OF THE SAME: OF THE LIKENESS AND DIFFERENCE OF BOTH THE TESTAMENTS AND PEOPLE, THE OLD AND THE NEW.” He says
Now by this discourse or treatise, dearly beloved, ye shall understand, that the Testament of the old and new church of God is all one… In the very substance truly thou canst find no diversity: the difference which is betwixt them, doth consist in the manner of administration, in a few accidents and certain circumstances… in respect of the substance there neither was, nor is, any more than one testament [covenant].”
Calvin likewise argued in Institutes 2.10.2 that
both covenants are truly one… although differently administered… [L]et us consider what resemblance and what difference there is between the covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites before the advent of Christ, and that which he had made with us now that Christ is manifested. It is possible indeed, to explain both in one word. The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs.
Commenting on Jeremiah 31:31, Calvin said
he then who once made a covenant with his chosen people, had not changed his purpose, as though he had forgotten his faithfulness. It then follows, that the first covenant was inviolable; besides, he had already made his covenant with Abraham, and the Law was a confirmation of that covenant. As then the Law depended on that covenant which God made with his servant Abraham, it follows that God could never have made a new, that is, a contrary or a different covenant… God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham, and at length confirmed by the hand of Moses.
Lutheran Martin Chemnitz objected “Shall I follow Calvin when he says there is actually only one covenant? Or shall I follow Scripture which testifies that the new covenant is better than the old?” John Owen explained “[I]t is said, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, as unto their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant… See Calvin. Institut. lib. 2:cap. xi.” This was the view that was summarized in the WCF (see the OPC Report on Republication “The fourth view maintains that the Sinaitic covenant is in substance a covenant of grace. As noted above, this is the position affirmed in our standards… [The view] that the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic and new covenant are not really the same covenant differing only in degree or circumstances, but in substance or essence… [is not] compatible with our doctrinal standards.”)
Calvin both presents his case for paedobaptism as well as defends it against various attacks by employment of the covenant idea. His positive arguments build initially upon his already established point of the continuity of the Old and New Covenants. It is due to the continuity of the covenant with the Jews and with Christians that enables Christians to baptize their infants.
Pastor Hines, like many modern American Presbyterians, does not agree (unless I have misunderstood him). He believes that the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant are the Covenant of Grace, but the Mosaic Covenant was not. It was a different covenant that promised life and blessing in Canaan for Israel upon the condition of obedience to Mosaic law. The Abrahamic/New Covenant is a gracious promise but the Mosaic is a law covenant.
A crucial point, however, is how the land of Canaan fits into this view of the covenants. Hines, and others like him, argue that due to its nature as a promise covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant graciously promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s natural offspring upon the condition of faith. He points to Hebrews 3:19 to support this idea. They were granted entrance/initial possession of the land through faith. However they could only remain in the land through works – through obedience to Mosaic law. They were ultimately exiled according to the Mosaic curse of Deuteronomy 28 because they failed to obey Mosaic law.
However, Hines did not explain when exactly this transition took place. At what point were the Israelites considered to have had possession through faith? At what point did the Mosaic covenant kick in? The Mosaic Covenant was established on Mt. Sinai in the wilderness long before Israel took possession of the promised land. In fact, Moses specifically said that their possession of the land was conditioned upon their obedience to Mosaic law. Deuteronomy 4:1 “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers is giving you.” Deuteronomy 8:1 says “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” Jeremiah understood that the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise conditioned upon Israel’s obedience to the law. 11:3-5 says “Cursed is the man who does not obey the words of this covenant 4 which I commanded your fathers in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and do according to all that I command you; so shall you be My people, and I will be your God,’ 5 that I may establish the oath which I have sworn to your fathers, to give them ‘a land flowing with milk and honey,’ as it is this day.”
Dennis Johnson notes
On the other hand, it is also true to say that Israel, though small and stubborn, is receiving the land through obedience. Moses has already drawn a connection between obedience and conquest of the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 4:1. Israel is to hear and to do the Lord’s commands “that” the promised consequences might follow, namely life and possession of the land. (Him We Proclaim, 298)
The Mosaic Covenant did not change the terms upon which Abraham’s offspring would enjoy the promised land. Rather, it elaborated upon the incipient terms of the Abrahamic Covenant. Note Genesis 26:3-5
to you [Isaac] and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. 4 And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; 5 because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.
The term `eqeb, “because,” used in Genesis 26:5 (and already in the original revelation to Abraham in Gen 22:18) signifies recompense, reward (cf. Ps 19:11; Prov 22:4; Isa. 5:23). This strengthens the case for understanding this as a matter of meritorious works. Moreover, Genesis 26:5 describes Abraham’s obedience in language surprising in the Genesis context, the divine demand being denoted by a series of legislative categories such as are later applied to the laws of Moses. A particularly interesting combination of such terms together with `eqeb, “in recompense for,” is found in Deuteronomy 7:12 (cf. 8:20). Quite possibly then, Genesis 26:5 employs the terminology of covenant stipulations from the Sinaitic Covenant, where it describes an arrangement governed by the meritorious works principle, to reenforce the point that Abraham’s obedience was also to be understood as having such a meritorious character and that, as such, it was the ground of the reward enjoyed by his descendants. (Kingdom Prologue, 325)
The Mosaic Covenant was an addendum to the Abrahamic Covenant, adding greater specificity. Deuteronomy 7:12 “Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers.”
It is not possible, biblically, to separate the Mosaic Covenant from the first Abrahamic promise. God’s oath to Abraham guaranteed that the first promise would be fulfilled, but it never promised it would be fulfilled through faith apart from works. It would be fulfilled through obedience to Mosaic law. God was longsuffering to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s natural offspring until the first promise had been completely fulfilled during Solomon’s reign. At that point, Israel was on their own. Abraham could no longer chase away the birds of prey. If Israel broke the law, they would suffer the consequences. Solomon sinned. Israel was split in two and the 10 tribes were destroyed forever. Then Judah sinned and was destroyed by Babylon, except for a small remnant, which God saved because the second Abrahamic promise of the Messiah (which was reiterated through David) had not yet been fulfilled. When that second promise was fulfilled at Christ’s birth, John the Baptist and Jesus began preaching the coming destruction and God destroyed Judah/Jerusalem in AD 70 as the final end of the Old Covenant. (I go over all of this in a podcast series).
How does circumcision relate to all of this? Pastor Hines leans heavily on Romans 4:11 to explain the meaning of circumcision. As explained in the discussion circumcision was a sign and seal (guarantee) of the second Abrahamic promise that Christ would come. It was a seal of Christ’s righteousness in the historia salutis. It was not a sign or seal of Christ’s righteousness imputed to Abraham, David, or anyone else in the ordo salutis. Circumcision was not a sign of union with Christ; a sign of the person’s fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life. Rather, circumcision devoted an individual to the priestly service of God according to the terms of Mosaic law. John D. Meade notes that the practice of circumcision in Egypt during the time was an initiation rite for those who would serve in the court of Pharaoh as priests. Richard Pratt, Jr. explains that in circumcision “Abraham committed himself to loyal service.” In this way Israel was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). This was a glorious thing, but it also proved to be an unbearable yoke (Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1) because it devoted one to obedience to Mosaic law (Gal 5:3). It was profitable if one kept the law, but if one broke the law their circumcision made them liable to Mosaic curse (Rom 2:25). And there was no getting out of this obligation. If one was not circumcised, they were to be cut off (killed; Gen 17:14; Ex. 4:24-26). There was no voluntary profession of saving faith. All offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were obligated to circumcision, devoting them to obedience to Mosaic law, upon pain of death.
Of course, the rite of circumcision did not guarantee that any particular circumcised Israelite would actually serve Yahweh from the heart as Mosaic law required (Deut 6:4). It just meant that they were obligated to (Deut 10:12-16). Note that Moses commanded the Israelites to circumcise their hearts, meaning devote themselves to the service of Yahweh from the bottom of their heart – not just outwardly. Circumcision was not a sign that an individual had a circumcised heart. It was a reminder that they needed one. Jeremiah again commanded Israel to circumcise their hearts – to obey from the heart (Jer 4:4). God had been longsuffering towards the circumcised, but this patience was coming to an end. Jeremiah warns of a coming judgment upon the circumcised for their disobedience. ““Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised— Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab, and all who are in the farthest corners, who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.” Jeremiah also looks forward to a day when God will make a new covenant that ensures obedience from the heart (Jer. 31:31-34). This is the same future work that Moses prophesied in Deut. 30:6, of which Calvin commented “This promise far surpasses all the others, and properly refers to the new Covenant, for thus it is interpreted by Jeremiah.”
It is in this vein that Paul says “we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit” (Phil. 3:3) because we have been “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” (Col. 2:11). A true Jew is now one “who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter” (Rom 2:29). We are devoted to the service of Yahweh from our inward heart, as Israel was commanded to be. But yet this is not sufficient to save us. Even with a regenerate heart we cannot obey the law perfectly, though we may sincerely. We still need Christ’s atonement and the imputation of his righteousness. This is the blessing that God promised Abraham one of his offspring would give to the nations. It was the error of the Judaizers to conflate these two distinct Abrahamic promises and thereby claim that Christians must be circumcised as well. Circumcision obligated the offspring of Abraham to obedience to the law for life and blessing in the promised land of Canaan not for eternal life. This is why Paul explains that Abraham was justified (had eternal life) prior to being circumcised. Circumcision obligated Abraham and his offspring to obedience to the law, but not for eternal life, which Abraham already had. The error of the Judaizers was not to equate circumcision with law keeping but to think God offered Israel eternal life upon the condition of obedience to Mosaic law.
19th century American Episcopalians argued for a national church model consisting of the righteous and the wicked based upon the example of Israel. Note how Charles Hodge responded:
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)
Hodge is mistaken in his claim that there were two Abrahamic Covenants. However, Hodge is correct that confounding the Covenant of Circumcision (Acts 7:8) with the Covenant of Grace is a great error.