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Coxe on New Covenant Union with Christ

[T]he covenant of grace is established in Christ as its head. All its promises were first given to him and in him they are all yes and amen. It is by union to him that believers obtain a new covenant interest and from him they derive a new life, grace, and strength to answer the ends of the new covenant. (40)

[A]ll the blessings of this covenant redound on believers by means of their union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the Head and Root of the new covenant, and the Fountain from which all its blessings are derived to us. Since these blessings were entirely purchased by him, so are they entirely applied to all that are in him and to none other… [N]one are at any time justified before God except those whom Christ has loved and washed from their sins in his own blood (Revelation 1:5). None are washed by him but those that are in him as the second Adam. It is by union to him as the root of the new covenant that the free gift comes on them to the justification of life (Rom 5:14ff). And none can have union to him but by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of God applies the blood of Christ for the remission of sins he does it also for the purging of the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. As certainly as any derive a new covenant right from Christ for pardon, they also receive a vital influence from him for the renovation of their natures and conforming their souls to his own image. (81-82)

Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ

Review: Captive to the Word of God – A Particular Baptist Perspective on Reformed and Covenant Theology

May 5, 2017 4 comments

captive_coverStuart Brogden has written an overview of baptist theology that is directed, as far as I can tell, towards baptists who unaware of, or are perhaps just dipping their toes into Calvinistic baptist beliefs. For that audience, the book provides a helpful overview of certain aspects of baptist beliefs. Though my review will focus on areas of concern/disagreement, there is much in the book that I agree with as well. I’d love to sit down and talk with Brogden some day. I sympathize with his journey deeper into historic baptist beliefs, even if we don’t end up agreeing on everything.

I do have to note that potential readers may be misled by the title of this book for two reasons. First, it’s not primarily a book on covenant theology. It is more broadly a book on baptist theology, with a discussion of covenants filling one section. Second, the label “particular baptist” tends to be associated with 17th century baptists. The author, Stuart Brogden, is a proponent of New Covenant Theology (NCT), not the theology of the 17th century men typically associated with the label “particular baptist.” I won’t quibble over the title only to note that some people may misunderstand what the book is about (as evidenced by the numerous times people have asked if it is a book on 1689 Federalism).

The book is divided into 4 sections: Part 1: The Baptists, Part 2: A Baptist View of Reformed Theology, Part 3: A Baptist View of Covenant Theology, Part 4: How it Works Together in a Local Church. My review will focus on Part 3 and two issues related to it (confessionalism and the law).

2nd London Baptist Confession

As a proponent of NCT, Brogden voices his problems with the 2nd LBCF and those who hold to it. First, he argues that modern churches or associations that hold to the 2nd LBCF as a confessional standard are not using the confession the way it was originally designed. Its purpose was primarily political and was never used as any kind of doctrinal standard for a church or association. He quotes ARBCA’s Constitution explaining its use of the confession and then asks “Is this the intended purpose of these aged confessions?”

Early Baptists who held to the battle cry of the Reformation were known as particular Baptists, to differentiate them from Baptists who held to general atonement. Baptists were not seeking commonality with the Presbyterians until late in the 17th century when they sought a way to make peace with the state church and government in England, weary of being persecuted. (vii)

“The Confessions published by the Baptists in the Seventeenth Century were neither creeds written to secure uniformity of belief, nor articles to which subscription was demanded.” (Goadby)… James Renihan… [agrees] with Goadby’s observation that the main reason confessions were written in this era was to tell others what the confessors thought, not to bind the confessors to an in-house creed… [W]e know that no man has pure motives and must admit that we would likely have taken some pragmatic steps to lessen the pain of constant harassment and persecution.  (93-94, 98)

The quote Brogden provides from Renihan does state that the particular baptists were interested in distancing themselves from anabaptists, but it does not say that churches did not subscribe to it or use it as a doctrinal standard amongst themselves. It is not clear that Brogden properly used Goadby’s quote either. Goadby appears to be referring to the idea of an established church demanding conformity by the use of the sword. Baptists certainly didn’t use their confession that way. But they did require those who confessed it to actually believe it and they did use it as the standard of association between each other.

Brogden suggests that the very idea of “subscription” is Presbyterian, not Baptist. He quotes ARBCA’s Constitution, stating

Confessional subscription employs three main terms in its nomenclature: absolute, strict/full, and loose. ARBCA has adopted the middle position. According to Dr. Morton H. Smith, “strict or full subscription takes at face value” the terminology used in adopting a confession of faith.

And then notes

Of interest to Baptists, I hope: Dr. Morton H. Smith, whose definition of full subscription ARBCA embraces, is a life-long Presbyterian. Their view of confessions has influenced Baptists as much as their view of covenants has. (92)

I find this comment and line of reasoning troubling. First, since Smith’s paper outlines all the various ways of subscribing to a confession, if any Baptist subscribes to a confession in any way, they must be unduly influenced by Presbyterianism. Second, the vast majority of Presbyterian churches do not hold to full subscription. Largely because of their view of ecclessiastical authority, they hold to various versions of loose subscription, including system (OPC) and good faith (PCA). Various Presbyterians, including Smith, have argued that these forms of loose subscription are incoherent and defeat the whole purpose of a confession, which is to state what you believe. ARBCA is unique in this instance and, rather than simply following Presbyterians, is actually leading them in demonstrating a more appropriate way to subscribe to a confession. And the Baptist distinctive of local church autonomy means that any particular church is free to agree or disagree with the 2nd LBCF and ARBCA without their pastors’ ordination being in jeopardy. For more on this point, see here and here and here.

These brief statements [from ARBCA] reveal deliberate use of a confession as the primary document (no matter their written protests to the contrary) that defines the doctrine and identity of the association and the churches that belong to it. The confession is “excellent” and becomes the “sum of sound doctrine” for them (as one elder in a 1689 LBC church put it to me), “founded on the Word of God”, and, in some cases, displacing it as the first line of defense and doctrine. This sad condition is well known among churches that hold to the Westminster Confession and some that hold to the 1689 LBC; and it shows up in their ecclesiology, how they function as a church, such as requiring “strict or full subscription” for serving as an elder while failing to take into account what is laid out in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 3. (92-93)

Again, I find this kind of reasoning troubling, and perhaps not well thought out. The alternative is to not require any confession at all from an elder or church. I can certianly understand why Brogden does not think the 2nd LBCF should be the standard for a church, since he thinks it is unbiblical, but his comments here are directed at the concept of using any confession at all as a church’s standard. Brogden also quotes from Bob Gonzales arguing in favor of “something close to biblicism” rather than “confessionally colored glasses.”

A final note on this point, Brogden makes many statements throughout the book that reveal a superficial understanding of the topics he is dealing with. Here is one example:

While some within the 1689 camp insist on putting the Savoy between the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 LBC, this is an argument without substance; as the Savoy was a clone of the Westminster, differing only on church government. The 1689 LBC is largely a clone of the Westminster. (104)

There are numerous important differences between Savoy and Westminster if one studies carefully. One pertinent example is the difference between the two in 19.1-2.

Chapter 19 on the Law of God

All of this is prepatory for Brogden’s criticism of the 2nd LBCF’s doctrine of the law. He argues the editors of the confession changed the obvious stuff, but were oblivious to various aspects of the Presbyterian system that were incompatible with Baptist beliefs and therefore they did not adquately revise their confession.

These issues (baptism, ecclesiology, church/civil relationships) are those which are easy to detect, above the water line one might say. What our Baptist forefathers did was to knock these matters out of the way and replace them with Baptist alternatives. What the early Baptists apparently did not do is carefully examine the foundation that was below the water line… One, perhaps the major area in which it appears the Baptists erred in cloning the Westminster regards the treatment of the Decalogue… This paedobaptist influence is found predominately in chapter 19 of the 1689 LBC, but also in one paragraph of chapter 22, addressing the “Christian Sabbath”. (104-105)

Brogden marches through Chapter 19 and its misused Scripture references (in the span of 4 1/2 pages) and quickly declares that the confession obviously contradicts itself.

Herein is a conflict within the confession…

How can the law given to Adam be the law of the Gentiles, who are without the law of Moses, then be described as the Ten Words which were given to Moses as law that the Jews had possession of? And how does using Romans 2:12a & 14-15 as the proof text prove that? Other versions of the 1689 LBC refer to Deuteronomy 10, which describes the tablets but that passage does not indicate that they are the same law as given to Adam. This is conjecture, not exegesis. And it conflicts with itself regardless of which footnotes are used in a given version of the confession…This is a sign of trouble in any document, when the Scripture passages used as references do not support the point being made. (106, 110, emphasis original)

In my opinion, his analysis is rather rash and would have been more meaningful if he had interacted with expositions or elaborations of the doctrine found in modern or historic writings, rather than just commenting on the choice of Scripture references. The meaning of the confession on this point is fairly simple: What God wrote on the hearts of all men had some level of identity with what God revealed externally and supernaturally to Israel. Gentiles do not have the law in the sense that they do not have a written copy of it revealed by God. But they do know the law because it is revealed innately within them, by which they will be judged just as Jews are judged by the written law.

Further, how could Adam know the Decalogue or any version of the “moral law” prior to having knowledge of good and evil? Only after he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit did Adam know he was naked (Genesis 3:11). Only then God said the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:22). It is clear that Adam did not know evil before he sinned, though he clearly knew the goodness of God. Since knowledge of the Law incites sin (Romans 3:20; 5:20; 7:7), one can only conclude that Adam was given the “moral law” conjunction with The Fall; not when he was created nor when he walked in innocence. There is no warrant in Scripture to take the Decalogue as an eternally binding “moral law” for all people: it was given to Moses and the infant nation of Israel (Nehemiah 9:13 & 14) and the tablets sit in an ark that is to be forgotten (Jeremiah 3:15-16). (106, emphasis original)

Just to make sure I was not misunderstanding him, I emailed the author to confirm that he does not believe man was created with knowledge of the law of God. He said that is correct. Since Adam and Eve had no knowledge of the law, they must not have been obligated to obey it. Again, Brogden confirmed via email that that is correct. No one knew or was obligated to obey the moral or universal law of God until after the Fall. The only command Adam and Eve had to obey was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

With regards to Brogden’s argument: after the Fall, with a corrupt nature, knowledge of the law incites sin. That was not the case prior to the Fall with an uncorrupted nature. The “knowledge of good and evil” did not mean “knowledge of what God requires of man.” The tree of knowledge of good and evil was symbolic. It represented man’s effort to discern good from evil apart from the help of God’s wisdom. Adam’s duty was to apply the law of God to every situation he encountered in life. If he faced a difficult situation, he was to seek wisdom from God and not rely on his own understanding, thereby growing in maturity (Prov 2:6; James 1:5; Deut 1:39; 1 Kings 3:9; Is. 7:15; Heb 5:14; Rom 12:2; Ps. 119:66; Eph 5:10). This was, in fact, Adam’s test (probation). When he had grown in wisdom and maturity, when he had grown wise enough to be judge (1 Cor 6:2-3), then he would enter God’s rest, be confirmed in righteousness, granted to eat from the tree of life and live forever with an immutable nature. But when he faced a difficult situation (the serpent’s twisted teaching about what God said), he did not ask God for wisdom, but rather relied on his own understanding of what is good and evil (Gen 3:5-6) and therefore ate of the tree. That’s what the tree symbolized.

Brogden favorably quotes John Reisinger’s simplistic linguistic objection to the term “moral law.” He offers an alternative.

Since the Hebrews under the Mosaic covenant rightly saw all the commands of YHWH as moral (why else would picking up sticks on the Sabbath be a capital offense? – Numbers 15:32-36), it dawned on me that the right nomenclature would be universal law (do not murder, marriage, etc.) and covenantal law (do not eat pork, stay in your home on the Sabbath, etc.). Many people refer to a “natural law” that applies to all people, but since such a law is instituted and communicated by Creator God, it’s a supernatural law which applies universally. Hence my preference for that label. The covenant one is in determines which laws apply, apart from the universal laws which apply to all men. (107)

This is conceptually the same as 1689 Federalism’s distinction between moral and positive law. In fact, Brogden actually quotes part of a 1689 Federalism essay to defend his view.

There is no argument that the Decalogue contains universal law, but it contains more; specific instructions and commands that are part of the Mosaic covenant with national Israel and no other nation or people. Rather than being the universal law of God, it would seem that the Decalogue is a particular application of law given in the Mosaic Covenant to the Jews.

In a critique of New Covenant Theology [in the Appendix to the Coxe/Owen volume and also found online here], Richard Barcellos quotes John Owen from his Works, 22:215… In this quote, both Owen invalidates the common assertion that what we see in Exodus 20 is nothing but the “moral” law, although he did specify the “prescriptive parts” as “absolutely moral;” which is the universal law shining through the tablets.

However, rather than recognizing that perhaps he has misunderstood the confession’s position, since both Barcellos and Owen agree with the confession’s position, Brogden declares Owen to be in support of his rejection of the confession.

Terrence O’Hare tell us that Thomas Aquinas appears to be the first to develop this line of thought, “asserting that the old law contains moral (emanating from natural law), judicial (laws regarding justice among men), and ceremonial (laws touching on worship, holiness, and sanctification) precepts; and that these three can be distinguished in the Decalogue as well.”… Accepting such a novel teaching from anyone is treading on thin ice; that the originator was a Roman Catholic makes it all the more important that we examine it closely before declaring it truth that binds everyone.  (108-109)

As someone who hold’s to the Confession’s teaching on the law, I have examined it closely (more closely than Brogden if his analysis in this book is any indication) and I find it to be biblical. Aquinas was not the first one to teach the concept of distinguishing between natural law and positive law in the Mosaic Covenant.

In summary, I believe the 1689 LBC suffers from paedobaptist influence in its perception of The Law, resulting in unavoidable conflicts within itself. Baptists ought not to embrace this unless we embrace their view of the covenants as well, for therein lies the basis for the view espoused in chapter 19 and chapter 22.8 of the 1689 LBC…

An astute observation from a news story wherein Paul McHugh, a respected psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, refuted self-identification of sex is most appropriate here: “gird your loins if you would confront this matter. Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle.” So it is in discussing the “Christian Sabbath” with those who hold to it. (120-121)

Covenant Theology

Brogden expresses appreciation for 1689 Federalism. He quotes from Denault, Coxe, Owen, Keach, and Pink. He does generally hold to a similar construct regarding the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants. In this regard I am thankful that an NCT proponent is studying and recognizing the value of historic baptist views. I wish more of them would do so. However, he also quotes extensively from NCT authors. He does recognizes that aspects of his view are not shared by proponents of NCT, who reject both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, though he maintains “the differences one may have with New Covenant Theology brothers are small and deal in large part with defining our terms.” In the end, he makes it clear that the book represents his own unique perspective.

I’ve taken part of Luther’s statement as my title because while I am thankful to God for myriad men in the Reformed Baptist world that have taught me much, I cannot claim full allegiance to a document written in the 17th century; it being mostly right… It is not my intention to present the 17th century Baptist view on the covenants, as if theirs was the ultimate expression of Baptist thought. Pascal Denault’s book, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, is an excellent review of that position and the folks at http://www.1689federalism.com/ have been doing a very good job explaining some of the historic Baptist distinctives and how they differ from the Westminster Confession of Faith. My intention is to present what I, a particular Baptist, see as the biblical view of the covenants. Conforming to what particular Baptist have historically believed is not my main concern. I desire to conform the Scriptures, not to 16th and 17th century brothers who no more had perfect theology than you or I. We are not to be disciples of mere men (1 Corinthians 3:1-9), but disciples of the Lord Jesus; thankful for those who have been faithful and gone before us but not trapped in their teachings. Hence the title of this part of the book: A Baptist View of Covenant Theology; not The Baptist View of Covenant Theology. There are, today, many variants of how Baptists view the covenants in Scripture; far be it from me to speak on behalf of those with whom I disagree on topics relevant to this (such as reviewed in Part 2: A Baptist View of Reformed Theology). My desire is to be captive to the Word of God; not captive to a 17th century confession nor a system of theology developed by men. (vii, 131-132, emphasis original)

The Adamic Covenant

Brogden affirms that God did make a covenant with Adam, even though the early chapters of Genesis do not explicitly call it a covenant. He also affirms that the covenant was a covenant of works (in disagreement with NCT/Progressive Covenantalism proponents like Gentry and Wellum).

The covenant made with Adam was a covenant of works which did not comprehend sin and the need for redemption… (Hosea 6:7; Jeremiah 33:19-22; Isaiah 24:5-6)… Adam was commanded by God to “do this and live” (You may surely eat of every tree in the garden, Genesis 2:16) and “do that and die” (but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. Genesis 2:17). Though very narrow in scope, this relationship required obedience by Adam for him to remain in fellowship with Creator God. And by his disobedience, death came to every man (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21 & 22), Jew and Gentile without distinction. (151, 149)

Brogden appears to be in agreement with the 2nd London Baptist Confession’s teaching on the Adamic Covenant of Works (see The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis), but upon closer inspection we find that is not the case. As we saw above, Brogden rejects the idea that the law was written on the heart of man at creation, but the law is the basis of the Adamic Covenant of Works. He rejects the historic meaning of the concept while retaining the label and some aspects of it. This is very confusing and is not made clear to the reader. He approvingly quotes Owen and Keach defending the doctrine. However, both quotes do not reflect Brogden’s view since they are specifically focused on showing how the law was the basis of the Covenant of Works.

John Owen, a paedobaptist who shared much in common theologically with Baptists, agreed with Pink on this point in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6 (emphasis mine):

“There was an original covenant made with Adam, and all mankind in him. The rule of obedience and reward that was between God and him, was not expressly called a covenant, but it contained the express nature of a covenant. For it was the agreement of God and man concerning obedience and disobedience, rewards and punishments. Where there is a law concerning these things, and an agreement upon it, by all parties concerned, there is a formal covenant. Wherefore it may be considered two ways.

1st. As it was a law only; so it proceeded from, and was a consequent of, the nature of God and man, with their mutual relation unto one another. God being considered as the Creator, Governor, and Benefactor of man: and man as an intellectual creature, capable of moral obedience; this law was necessary, and is eternally indispensable.

2dly. As it was a covenant; and this depended on the will and pleasure of God. I will not dispute whether God might have given a law unto men, that should have had nothing in it of a covenant properly so called as is the law of creation unto all other creatures, which hath no rewards nor punishments annexed unto it. Yet this God calls a covenant also, inasmuch as it is an effect of his purpose, his unalterable will and pleasure, Jer. 33:20, 21.”

Benjamin Keach addressed the question of whether Adam was party to a covenant with God:

“Proposition: That the Breach betwixt God and Man, was occasioned by the violation of the First Covenant which God entered into with Adam, as the Common or Public Head and Representative of all Mankind; which Covenant was a Covenant of Works; I say, God gave a Law, or entered into a Covenant of Works with the First Adam and his Seed, and in that Covenant he gave himself to be our God, even upon the strict and severe condition of perfect Obedience, personally to be performed by Man himself, with that Divine Threatening of Death and Wrath if he broke the Covenant, In the Day thou eats thereof thou shalt surely die. Yet some may doubt (as one observes) whether this was a Covenant of Works, because here is only a threatening of Death upon his Disobedience to this one positive Law.”

In the style of 17th century apologetics (often called diatribes), Keach stated the propositions and provided the answers. This is his answer to the above proposition:

“Man in his First Creation was under a Natural Obligation to universal compliance to the Will of God, and such was the Rectitude of his Nature, it imports an exact Conformity to the Divine Will, there being an inscription of the Divine Law upon Adam’s heart, which partly still remains, or is written in the hearts of the very Gentiles (though much blur’d) which is that light which is in all, or that which we call The light of Nature.”

The fact that Brogden included these quotes in support of his view suggests to me that perhaps he did not adequately understand the quotes. He could have found other quotes dealing more narrowly with the existence of a Covenant of Works, or simply used the beginning of these ones without including the explainations of how the moral law was the basis of the Covenant of Works. Owen says “As it was a law only; so it proceeded from, and was a consequent of, the nature of God and man… this law was necessary, and is eternally indispensable.” Brogden rejects that idea. All that existed prior to the Fall was the one positive law not to eat from the tree. The subsequent “universal law” that Brogden says was written on man’s heart after the Fall was not natural, stemming from God and man’s nature as imago dei, or necessary (since it didn’t exist prior to the Fall). It must therefore have been positive law that depended only on the will and pleasure of God (note well that this means there is no law derived from God’s nature, a problem with many/most versions of NCT that reformed baptists have pointed out, leading to rejections of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, see also here). Since that is Brogden’s view, it makes little sense for him to quote Owen making the opposite point. Owen’s point was simply to explain LBCF 7.1, which says that man, by nature, owes obedience to God without expecting any reward, but that God voluntarily condescended (by His will and pleasure) to establish a covenant with Adam to offer him a reward for his obedience.

His quotation of Keach is even more out of place. Keach says “[S]ome may doubt (as one observes) whether this was a Covenant of Works, because here is only a threatening of Death upon his Disobedience to this one positive Law.” That describes Brogden’s view: there is only a threatening of punishment for disobedience to one positive law. Keach says that is wrong because “Man in his First Creation was under a Natural Obligation to universal compliance to the Will of God, and such was the Rectitude of his Nature.” Keach is referring to Ecc. 7:29, which Brogden says has nothing to do with the law being written on man’s heart. These quotations are out of place and they reveal, in my opinion, that perhaps Brogden has not wrestled deeply with the doctrine.

Brogden also rejects the idea that the reward of the Covenant of Works was glorification – being made immutable.

There is nothing in the Scripture to support the notion widely held by some in the paedobaptist world of Covenant Theology that Adam had a “time of probation” that hypothetically held out access to the Tree of Life. This notion implies a “plan B” in God’s mind, which Scripture flat-out proscribes (Acts 2:23 for example) yet open theology embraces. Our God is in His heavens and does what He pleases.

This is simply a confusion of God’s revealed/preceptive will and His secret/decretive will. (see The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis as well as Better Than the Beginning for helpful discussion of this point.)

Abrahamic Covenant

Brogden affirms the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant, noting that Abraham’s physical offspring was a type of his spiritual offspring. I will just note one aspect that I do not personally agree with.

I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Genesis 17:19). This everlasting covenant is an eternal one, established and fulfilled by God, reconciling elect sinners with holy God. This is testified to by the apostle in Galatians 4:21-31 as he identifies the covenant represented by Sarah as the covenant with the heavenly Jerusalem, which is liberty (John 8:36); sharply contrasted with earthly Jerusalem, which is slavery, condemnation, and death (2 Corinthians 3:7-9). (137)

I think Brogden’s identification of the Covenant of Circumcision with the Eternal Covenant (Covenant of Redemption) is mistaken. The use of the word “everlasting” does not sufficiently establish that view. Neither does Galatians 4:21-31, which rather teaches that two subsequent covenants (Old and New) come from the Covenant of Circumcision. This leads him to mistakenly believe Christians are under the Abrahamic Covenant.

In several places, God promised several things to Abraham and his offspring. The apostle is precise in correcting the Jewish perspective wherein they supposed all national Israel was being spoken of as that offspring. Paul has even confused some modern commentators here, but clearly he means that what was promised to Abraham’s offspring was not to national Israel and its countless members; it was promised to one offspring, the promised seed that national Israel had been formed to protect as it was delivered through 43 generations (Matthew 1:17). Here is how one commentary explains it:

promises—plural, because the same promise was often repeated (Gen 12:3, 7; Gen 15:5, 18; Gen 17:7; Gen 22:18), and because it involved many things; earthly blessings to the literal children of Abraham in Canaan, and spiritual and heavenly blessings to his spiritual children; but both promised to Christ, “the Seed” and representative Head of the literal and spiritual Israel alike (163)

I do not agree with Brogden here and I think it overlooks the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. As Augustine explained, God made two promises to Abraham, one about the land of Canaan and his physical offspring, the other about Christ blessing all nations. In Galatians 3:16, Paul is not denying that God promised certain things to Abraham’s physical offspring (plural). Rather, he is clarifying that the promise to bless all nations was about one particular offspring, which was fulfilled in Christ. For more on this, see here.

Mosaic Covenant

In some comments Brogden rightly notes that the Mosaic Covenant was limited to temporal life and blessing in Canaan, in distinction from the Adamic Covenant.

While they lived in the flesh, they were in the Mosaic Covenant as God’s temporal people. So all national Israel was at all times members of two covenants – one identifying their spiritual condition (in Adam or in Christ), the other identifying them as God’s temporal people (under Moses). (146)

But elsewhere he argues that Christ secured eternal life and blessing for his people through the Mosaic Covenant.

Under the Old Covenant, Israel’s obedience procured God’s temporal favor: produce, favor with other nations, power, and God’s protection. Under the Old Covenant, as one born under the law, Jesus’ obedience procured spiritual and eternal favor: redemption, sanctification, righteousness, and Christ’s intercession for the New Jerusalem, sealing the New Covenant under which sinners are declared righteous (Romans 5:18-20, 8:3-4, Galatians 3:13, 4:4-5). The Old Covenant, in each of its administrations, demands much, but provides no hope of reconciliation with God.

A covenant cannot be bifurcated like that. You can’t say it means one thing to some members but a different thing to other members. That would imply two different covenants/agreements. Brogden appears to follow Jeffery Johnson here.

Some people, including Baptists (recall Spurgeon’s unclear statement in the introduction to this topic), make the error of claiming that the New Covenant was conditional for its mediator, that Jesus’ redemptive work was His part of the Covenant of Redemption. Scripture tells us Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and earned the right to issue the New Covenant. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17); this phrase is commonly used “shorthand” to refer to what we call the Old Testament. (196)

Brogden also argues the Old Covenant was not the Mosaic Covenant, but was rather an umbrella covenant that embraced the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants.

The Old Covenant represents God’s relationship to national Israel, and includes the three major covenants contained therein, although the Abrahamic Covenant is only partially in this arena. This began to close with the Davidic Covenant, coming to a final close when the son of David who was his Lord fulfilled all the requirements of Moses and the prophets and cut the New Covenant (Galatians 3:24). The Old Covenant was worn out and ended. (145)

I do not agree with this articulation. I believe Scripture identifies the Old Covenant as the Mosaic Covenant, and that the Abrahamic and Davidic are different covenants. However, the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants have a great deal of overlap with the Mosaic Covenant and to the degree that they overlap, Scripture’s comments about the Old Covenant apply to them as well.

Final Note

Brogden makes some confused comments about the 2nd LBCF with regards to covenant theology.

I read, studied and taught the 1689 London Baptist Confession and saw it had much the same view of the Mosaic Covenant as taught by the WCF; and I wondered how this could be. Then I found a book that shook me with some simple explanations from Scripture on the covenants. Jeff Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw of the Theology of Infant Baptism exposed the flawed foundation of paedobaptism, but more importantly, it explained the dichotomist nature of the covenant given unto Abraham as clearly presented by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4. (iv)

If Brogden had been reading the confession as teaching the same thing as the WCF on the Mosaic Covenant, then he was misreading it. Johnson’s book and his subsequent reading of Denault would have made that clear. Why then does he still imply the confession teaches the same thing as the WCF on the Mosaic Covenant, rather than what is found in Denault’s 17th century survey?

As Baptists learn more about the covenants of Scripture (explored in more detail in Part 3: A Baptist View of Covenant Theology), apart from the Presbyterian hermeneutic so prevalent in Reformed publications, will we be willing to examine what our confessions say about the secondary doctrines that flow out from one’s view of the covenants? We will if we are to be true to our calls of Sola Scriptura and Semper Reformanda. And we will also not be willing to defend our confession by mere argument, but with a clear conscience led by the teaching from the Word of God. (103)

Brogden seems to suggest we have two options: the Presbyterian covenant theology, or his own personal covenant theology. There is no category for 1689 Federalism, which rejects Presbyterian covenant theology, but also rejects Brogden’s covenant theology.

Conclusion

This is not a complete review. It doesn’t touch on everything in the book, but since readers of this blog are primarily interested in 1689 Federalism and whether this book is a good resource for it, that is what I focused on. The critical nature of this review should not overshadow many good things this brother has to say in the book. In the end, however, I would not recommend the book because its pluses do not outweigh its minuses. The helpful things in book can easily be found in other, more reliable sources. In an endorsement at the beginning of the book, Jeffery Johnson says “In my opinion, this helpful work needs to be required reading for all Baptist seminary students.” I am surprised by such a strong endorsement and do not share his assessment.

CFTP Podcast: NCT & 1689 Federalism

April 30, 2017 8 comments

Conversations From the Porch Episode #50 is a discussion between a proponent of NCT (Dustin Segers) and a proponent of the 2nd London Baptist Confession (Jason Mullet). For those interested, the conversation is worth listening. It shows have far NCT has come (at least this version of it). Segers notes that to deny a constant, unchanging absolute law that binds all men (something some proponents of NCT have denied) is a serious error. Segers argues this unchanging absolute law transcends the Old Covenant but also overlaps with many Old Covenant commands (he says 9 of the 10 commandments). The Old Covenant as a unit was abrogated, but absolute law continues. I offered the following comments on the web page.


 

Thank you for the discussion, gentlemen. Jason gave a disclaimer that he hasn’t necessarily studied all the details of 1689 Federalism. With that in mind, I’d like to clarify a very important point.

1689 Federalism agrees with Dustin that the entire Old Covenant, as a unit, was abrogated. On this point, we disagree with Westminster covenant theology. Note Richard Barcellos:

“Hearty agreement must be given when New Covenant theologians argue for the abolition of the Old Covenant. This is clearly the teaching of the Old and New Testaments (see Jeremiah 31:31-32; Second Corinthians 3; Galatians 3, 4; Ephesians 2:14-15; Hebrews 8-10). The whole law of Moses, as it functioned under the Old Covenant, has been abolished, including the Ten Commandments. Not one jot or tittle of the law of Moses functions as Old Covenant law anymore and to act as if it does constitutes redemptive-historical retreat and neo-Judaizing. However, to acknowledge that the law of Moses no longer functions as Old Covenant law is not to accept that it no longer functions; it simply no longer functions as Old Covenant law. This can be seen by the fact that the New Testament teaches both the abrogation of the law of the Old Covenant and its abiding moral validity under the New Covenant.”
-In Defense of the Decalogue, 61.

For more on this, see:

It seems that Dustin is also unfamiliar with 1689 Federalism distinctives. He said there are only two possible approaches to law in the NT: either all Old Covenant commands are binding unless explicitly repealed, or all Old Covenant commands are abrogated unless explicitly repeated in the New. Neither approach is held by 1689 Federalism, which argues that all Old Covenant law was abrogated with the Old Covenant, however, when the Old Covenant was abrogated, what remained was a transcovenantal law that pre-dated the Old Covenant. We call this the moral law, while you call it absolute law. But the basic concept we agree on.

The question then is how do we know which Old Covenant commands overlapped with absolute law? You say “Those that are repeated by the Apostles in the New Covenant.” We say, “No, that’s not something that the Apostles say” (a point Justin brought out well). We believe that the Apostles’ hermeneutic should be our hermeneutic. Obviously the Apostles did not determine which laws were absolute by looking at what was repeated in the NT. They had to have a method of reading the Old Testament and determining which ones still applied (which ones were absolute law). Whatever their method was is our method as well. Their method was not “whatever is repeated” and neither is ours. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of Christ, we believe that the Apostles avoided being arbitrary by carefully studying the Old Testament and recognizing that some laws were distinguished from other laws from the beginning. Some laws were written in stone by the finger of God (Ex 24:12; 32:16; 34:1, 28) and spoken by God (Ex 20:1), and the rest of the laws written by (Ex 24:4;34:27) and spoken by (Ex 21:1; 24:3) Moses. Only the 10 Commandments/tablets of stone were placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; 40:20; Deut 10:1-6; 1 Kings 8:9; Heb 9:4). We believe this was the hermeneutical tool or filter that the Apostles used to determine which Old Covenant laws were absolute.

For more on this “filtering” concept, see

See also


 

Also, a clarification regarding the Sabbath. Jason seemed to suggest that some who hold to the 1689 Confession deny there are any changing aspects of the 4th commandment. He said “I don’t think the Sabbath’s application in the OT fits that, otherwise God would have been resting every 7th day from all eternity.” The comments were a bit ambiguous and likely involve some misunderstanding on either Jason or Dustin’s part, or both. To clarify, the 1689 Confession teaches that the Sabbath was a moral-positive law. 22.7 says “in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment…” Positive refers to a law that is not eternal and not necessitated by God’s nature. Thus the Sabbath reflects an unchanging principle: that man is to set aside time to worship God. Which day is a matter of God’s choice via positive law. For an explanation, see Positive law and covenantal canon. See also Owen’s lengthy discussion of how positive law relates to the 10 commandments.

Backus Against Dominionism

April 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Dominionism (related to the Christian Reconstruction movement), which has gained popularity in Christian circles since the 1970s, is nothing new. Isaac Backus explained the ultimate root of the error.

The covenant of circumcision gave those who were born in it a right to treat all others, both as to worship and commerce, as no others had any right to treat them. A right to office also in that church was hereditary. When our Savior came, he fulfilled the law, both moral and ceremonial, and abolished those hereditary distinctions among mankind. But in the centuries following, deceitful philosophy took away the name which God has given to that covenant, (Acts 7:8) and added the name Grace to it; from whence came the doctrine, that dominoin is founded in grace. And although this latter name has been exploded by many, yet the root of it has been tenaciously held fast and taught in all colleges and superior places of learning, as far as Christianity has extended, until the present time; whereby natural affection, education, temporal interest, and self-righteousness, the strongest prejudices in the world, have all conspired to bind people in that way, and to bar their minds against equal liberty and believers’ baptism. But the writings of our learned ministers in England have communicated much light to this country; to which more was added by the travails and labors of our southern fathers and brethren.

A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, p. 137

All of the modern paedobaptists arguing against theonomy and dominionism by insisting that “Abraham is not Moses” are missing the root of the error. Backus is correct that the error is rooted in an unbiblical understanding of Abraham.

Charles Simeon on the New Covenant

April 18, 2017 Leave a comment

CharlesSimeon.jpgKyle Kraeft recently sent me Charles Simeon’s commentary on Jeremiah 31. Simeon (1759–1836), an Anglican, was a leader among evangelical churchmen, and was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society in 1799. This peaked my interest because Thomas Scott (whose commentary notes on the New and Old Covenants I previously highlighted) was also a founder of the Church Missionary Society. I would love to find out if this had become the prevailing view among that circle.


 

Verses 31-34

DISCOURSE: 1074

THE NEW COVENANT

Jeremiah 31:31-34. Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the Home of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; (which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord:) but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

THOUGH there is among us a general idea that Christianity is founded on the Jewish religion, yet the specific difference between them is very little understood. It would be well for us to have clear views of this subject: for unless we know the comparative excellency of the new covenant above that which it superseded, we can never justly appreciate the great advantages we enjoy. In the passage before us, the Mosaic and Christian covenants are contrasted; and the abolition of the one, and the establishment of the other, are foretold. But before we enter on the comparison between the two, it will be necessary to observe, that there are, properly speaking, only two great covenants; under the one or other of which all the world are living: the one is the Adamic covenant, which was made with Adam in Paradise, and which is entirely a covenant of works; the other is the Christian covenant, which, though made with Christ, and ratified by his blood upon the cross, was more or less clearly revealed from the beginning of the world. It was first announced in that promise, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” It was afterwards more plainly opened to Abraham, and afterwards still more fully to Moses. The Mosaic covenant, properly speaking, was distinct from both of these: it was not altogether a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace; but it partook of the nature of both. As containing the moral law, it was a re-publication of the covenant of works: and as containing the ceremonial law, it was a dark and shadowy representation of the covenant of grace. It was a mixed covenant, designed for one particular nation; and given to them, in order to introduce the covenant under which we live. Of that the prophet says, that it should in due time be superseded by a new and better covenant; and the Apostle, quoting this whole passage, says, that “it had then waxed old, and was vanishing away [Note: Hebrews 8:8-13.].”

In order to give a clear view of this subject, we shall state,

I. The blessings of the new covenant—

These being specified by the prophet, and copied exactly by the Apostle, we shall adhere strictly to them, without attempting to reduce them to any other order than that which is here observed. In the new covenant then, God undertakes,

1. To write his law in our hearts—

[This is a work which none but God can effect. The kings were commanded to write a copy of their law, each one for himself: but, though they might write it on parchment, they could not inscribe it on their own hearts. This however God engages to do for all who embrace the new covenant. He will make all the laws which he has revealed, agreeable to us: he will discover to us the excellency of them; and “cause us to delight in them after our inward man.” He will make us to see, that the moral “law is holy and just and good,” even while it condemns us for our disobedience to its commands; and that “the law of faith” also (that is, the Gospel) is a marvellous exhibition of God’s mercy and grace, and exactly suited to the necessities of our souls. He will engage our wills to submit to his; and dispose our souls to put forth all their energies in obedience to his commands. This he has repeatedly promised [Note: Ezekiel 36:26-27.];” and this he will fulfil to all who trust in him.]

2. To establish a relation between himself and us—

[By nature we are enemies to him, and he to us. But on our embracing of this covenant, he will “give himself to us as our God, and take us for his people.” In being our God, he will exercise all his perfections for our good; his wisdom to guide us, his power to protect us, his love and mercy to make us happy, his truth and faithfulness to preserve us to the end. In taking us for his people, he will incline us to employ all our faculties in his service. Our time, our wealth, our influence, yea, all the members of our bodies, and all the powers of our souls, will be used as his, for the accomplishment of his will, and the promotion of his glory. We may see this illustrated in the life of the Apostle Paul. God took as much care of him, as if there had been no other creature in the universe; and he devoted himself to God, as much as if his faculties had not been capable of any other use or application. The effects of this relation are not indeed equally visible in all the Lord’s people: but the difference is in the degree only, and not in the substance and reality.]

3. To give us the knowledge of himself—

[There is a knowledge of God which cannot be attained by human teaching; a spiritual experimental knowledge, a knowledge accompanied with suitable dispositions and affections. But this God will give to those who lay hold on his covenant: “He will reveal himself to them, as he does not unto the world.” He will “put them into the cleft of the rock, and make all his glory to pass before their eyes;” and proclaim to them his name, The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious [Note: Exodus 33:18-23; Exodus 34:5-7.], &c. He has promised, that “all his people shall be taught of him [Note: Isaiah 54:13. John 6:45.],” “the least as well as the greatest,” yea, the least often in preference to the greatest [Note: Matthew 11:25. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.]. And in proof that this promise is really fulfilled to all who receive the Gospel, St. John declares it to be a known acknowledged fact: “we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding to know him that is true [Note: 1 John 5:20.].”]

4. To pardon all our iniquities—

[Under this new covenant, we have access to “the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness;” and by washing in it “we are cleansed from all sin [Note: 1 John 1:7.].” Whatever transgressions we may have committed in our unregenerate state, they are all put away; “though they may have been as scarlet, they have become white as snow; though they have been red like crimson, they are as wool” — — —]

Hitherto we have spoken only in a general way of the blessings of the new covenant: we proceed to notice them more particularly, while we state,

II. The difference between the old and new covenants—

We have already observed, that by “the old covenant” is meant the Mosaic covenant, made with the Jews on Mount Sinai. Between this and the Gospel covenant there is a wide difference. They differ,

1. In the freeness of their grants—

[The Mosaic covenant imposed certain conditions to be fulfilled on the part of the Jews; and on their fidelity to their engagements all the blessings of that covenant were suspended [Note: Exodus 24:6-8.]. But we find no condition specified in the new covenant. Must we attain the knowledge of God, and become his people; and have his law written in our hearts? true: but these are not acts of ours, which God requires in order to the bestowing of other blessings upon us; but blessings which he himself undertakes to give. if any say, that repentance and faith are conditions which we are to perform, we will not dispute about a term; you may call them conditions, if you please; but that which we affirm respecting them is, that they constitute a part of God’s free grant in the Gospel covenant; so that they are not conditions, in the same sense that the obedience of the Jews was the condition upon which they held the promised land: they are, as we have just said, blessings freely given us by God; and not acts of ours, whereon to found our claim to other blessings.

It is worthy of observation, that the Apostle, mentioning this grant of the new covenant, particularly specifies, that God, “finding fault with” the Jews for their violations of the old covenant, says, “I will make a new covenant [Note: Hebrews 8:8.].” Had he said, “Commending them for their observation of the inferior covenant, God said, I will give you a better covenant,” we might have supposed, that it was given as a reward for services performed: but when it was given in consequence of the hopeless state to which their violations of the former covenant had reduced them, the freeness of this covenant appears in the strongest light.]

2. In the extent of their provisions—

[We shall again notice the different blessings as they lie in our text. God wrote his law upon tables of stone, and put it into the hands of those with whom his old covenant was made: but, according to his new covenant, he undertakes to put it into our inward parts, and to write it on our hearts. What a glorious difference is this! and how beautifully and exultingly does the Apostle point it out to his Corinthian converts [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:3.]!

God established indeed a relation between himself and his people of old: but this relation, though nominally the same with ours, was by no means realized to the same extent. To true believers amongst them he was the same that he now is: but what was he to the people at large, with whom the covenant was made? He interposed for them doubtless, on many occasions, in an external way; and they externally acknowledged him: but his Communications to us are internal, and our devotion to him is real and spiritual.

Under the old covenant, God revealed himself to his people in types and shadows; and the ceremonies which he appointed were so dark and various, that they could not be known to the generality, unless the people carefully instructed each other. On this account it was commanded that the children should inquire into the reason of various institutions (as that of the passover, and the feast of unleavened bread, and the redemption of the first-born); and their parents were to explain them [Note: Exodus 12:26-27; Exodus 13:8; Exodus 13:14-15.]. But with us, there are only two institutions, and those the plainest that can be imagined; and the great truths of our religion are so interwoven with our feelings, that a person whose desires are after God, needs no other teaching than that of God’s word and Spirit; and though the instructions of ministers, of masters, and of parents, are still extremely useful, yet may a person obtain the knowledge of God and of salvation without being indebted to any one of them: and it is a fact, that many persons remote from ordinances, and from instruction of every kind, except the blessed book of God, are often so richly taught by the Spirit of God, as to put to shame those who enjoy the greatest external advantages [Note: See 1 John 2:27. where the Apostle manifestly refers to the expressions in our text.].

The forgiveness of sins which was vouchsafed under the old covenant, was not such as to bring peace into the conscience of the offender: (“the sacrifices which he offered, could not make him perfect as pertaining to the conscience [Note: Hebrews 9:9.]:”) nor indeed were any means appointed for the obtaining of pardon for some particular offences: but under the new covenant, “all who believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses [Note: Acts 13:39.]” and, “being justified by faith, they have peace with God [Note: Romans 5:1.],” “a peace that passeth understanding,” “a joy unspeakable and glorified.”

How glorious does the new covenant appear in this contrasted view! and what reason have we to adore our God for the rich provisions contained in it!]

3. In the duration of their benefits—

[The annual repetition of the same sacrifices under the old covenant was intended to intimate to the people, that their pardon was not final: had their guilt been perfectly removed by them, the Apostle observes very justly, that “they would then have ceased to be offered; because the worshippers would have had no more conscience of sins:” but, inasmuch as the sacrifices were annually renewed, they were, in fact, no more than “a remembrance of sins made every year [Note: Hebrews 10:1-3.].” But under the new covenant God engages to “remember our sins and iniquities no more:” they are not only forgiven by him, but forgotten; not only cancelled, but “blotted out as a morning cloud [Note: Isaiah 44:22.]” not only removed from before his face, but “cast behind his back into the depths of the sea [Note: Micah 7:19.].” His former people he put away, “though he was an husband unto them:” but to us his “gifts and callings are without repentance [Note: Romans 11:29.].” This is particularly marked by the prophet, in the verses following our text [Note: ver. 35–37.]; and by an inspired Apostle, in his comment on the very words we are considering. He is shewing the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to that appointed under the law: and he confirms his position from this circumstance; that the sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests could never take away sin, and therefore were continually repeated; whereas Christ’s sacrifice, once offered, would for ever take away sin, and “perfect for ever all them that are sanctified.” He then adduces the very words of our text; and says, that, in these words, “the Holy Ghost is a witness to us;” for that, in promising first, that “the law should be written in our hearts,” and then, that “our sins and iniquities should be remembered no more,” he had attested fully the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, and given ample assurance, that those who relied upon it should never have their sins imputed to them [Note: Hebrews 10:11-18.].

It is needless to multiply words any further upon this subject; for the old covenant, with all its benefits, was to continue only for a limited period; whereas the new covenant is to continue to the end of the world; and its benefits to the remotest ages of eternity.]

Infer—

1. The folly of making self-righteous covenants of our own—

[Why did God give us another covenant, but because the former was inadequate to our necessities? Shall we then be recurring to the old covenant, or forming new ones of our own upon the same principle? Take your own covenants, and examine them, and see what grounds of hope they afford you. We will give you have to dictate your own terms: say, if you please, “You are to repent and amend your lives: and on those conditions God shall give you eternal life:” Can you repent, can you amend your lives, by any power of your own? Have you agreed with God what shall be the precise measure of your repentance and amendment? Have you attained the measure which you yourselves think to be necessary, so that you can say, My conscience witnesses for me, that I am fully prepared to meet my God? If not, see to what a state you reduce yourselves: you need none other to condemn you: for God may say, “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee.” O be not thus infatuated: cast not away the Lord’s covenant for such delusive projects of your own: but, instead of depending on your own weak endeavours, go and lay hold on that better covenant, which provides every thing for you, as the free gift of God in Christ Jesus.]

2. The blessedness of those who obey the Gospel—

[You have “a covenant which is ordered in all things, and sure [Note: 2 Samuel 23:5.]:” and you have a Mediator, who, having purchased for you all the blessings of this covenant, will infallibly secure them to you by his efficacious grace, and all-prevailing intercession. Place then your confidence in him. Employ him daily (if I may so speak) to maintain your interest in it; and give him the glory of every blessing you receive. Your enjoyment of its benefits must be progressive, as long as you continue in the word — — — Let your desires after them be more and more enlarged: and in due time you shall enjoy them in all their fulness. It is in heaven alone that you will fully possess them: but there you shall perfectly comprehend the meaning of that promise, “Ye shall be my people, and I will be your God [Note: Revelation 21:3.].”]

John Gill & 1689 Federalism

April 14, 2017 8 comments

On the 1689Federalism.com website, a distinction is made between 1689 Federalism and 20th Century Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology. A video explains the differences and a venn diagram shows the areas of agreement and disagreement. From the very first day that the 1689federalism.com site went live, the venn diagram included a disclaimer. It said “20th Century Reformed Baptists* *This label is not to suggest this view is entirely new in the 20th century. Men such as John Gill have held similar views.”

Regretfully, someone (Joshua Whipps) has attempted to use Gill to argue that the historical claims made about 1689 Federalism are untrue and that it was never more than an oddball idea held by a few. There seems to be some fundamental misunderstandings involved. This issue was raised again yesterday in a tweet to me, so I figured I’d write something up to clarify.

RazorsKiss
@NWhite_GA I am typically met with a cricket chorus when I point out that the unfortunate category of “20th century” doesn’t apply to Gill.
Jul 25, 2016, 7:45 AM

As I explained already, there was a disclaimer about the label from the very first day anyone heard of it. The reason “20th century” was used is because it described a view that arose in the 20th century largely without any influence from historic baptist covenant theology – Gill or otherwise. As James Renihan explains in his Introduction to Recovering a Covenantal Heritage, “By 1920… Very few, if any of the churches in the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions, remained committed to the old confessional theology. Baptists were swept away by… Revivalism, Modernism, Fundamentalism, and Dispensationalism.” When confessional baptist theology was recovered later in the 20th century, it was nursed primarily by Westminster Theological Seminary (notably John Murray) and the Banner of Truth (which did not reprint historic baptist works on covenant theology). As a result, baptists attempted to construct a covenant theology while wearing “Presbyterian glasses” (though they were still obvious critical of various aspects). That is not a comment on John Gill. It is a comment on baptists in the 20th century. When we say this, we are not necessarily talking about all baptists everywhere in the 20th century. We are not making any comment about Whipps himself. We are referring specifically to an influential group of pastors who helped lead and educate other reformed baptists (such as Walt Chantry, Samuel Waldron, Fred Malone, Earl Blackburn, etc). This book might help provide context that is missing for some.

Please note that 1689 Federalism does not claim that 1689 Federalism is or was the only confessionally acceptable view. It gets its name from the fact that the overwhelming majority of 1689 baptists held to 1689 Federalism and it explains the change in language between the WCF and the LBCF.

Whipps misunderstand 1689 Federalism’s comments about the tradition being lost.

Joshua Whipps Joshua Whipps: I would like to see what the 1689F folks would say about this. Do they really think Dr. Voluminous had no idea what Keach, Coxe, Owen, etc. taught? I can’t imagine it, given his references to them on so many other topics.
Armen Nazarian Armen Nazarian Yea, I have a hard time seeing how an important doctrine like that could be lost.
Joshua Whipps Joshua Whipps Owen’s was never “lost” – it was just rejected, for the most part. Why is this any different?

No one ever suggested that Gill held his views because he didn’t know about 1689 Federalism. That’s a very significant misunderstanding. Those comments are strictly referring to men in the 20th century (hence the label).

RazorsKiss
@NWhite_GA Sure, I got you. I still do wonder why it is they don’t deal with Gill’s influence more, instead of the “lost” thesis in vogue.
Jul 25, 2016, 7:56 AM
RazorsKiss
@NWhite_GA Well, as I noted, there’s 16 years between the end of Keach’s pastorate, and the beginning of Gill’s. Far less than 1644-1689.
Jul 25, 2016, 7:57 AM
RazorsKiss
@NWhite_GA Sure, but by any measure, Gill is quite literally the next generation after Keach/Coxe. The “lost” thesis doesn’t seem plausible.
Jul 25, 2016, 7:58 AM
NWhite_GA
@RazorsKiss Yeah, and Keach had his issues too, haha! 1689F is committed to strict confessionalism. You must understand them in that context
Jul 25, 2016, 7:59 AM
RazorsKiss
@NWhite_GA Oh, sure – but before they came along – we WERE the strict confessionalists! When your CT was straight outta Gill, and folks…
Jul 25, 2016, 8:01 AM
RazorsKiss
@NWhite_GA …tell you that not only you, but EVERYONE else since Coxe and Keach *lost* the confession on CT – that’s a tall tale to accept.
Jul 25, 2016, 8:02 AM

No one has ever said or suggested that “everyone else since Coxe and Keach lost the confession on CT.” Whipps’ working thesis appears to be that 1689 Federalism was never lost, it was merely rejected nearly as soon as it was put foward. John Gill, the giant of baptist thought, rejected 1689 Federalism in the mid 18th century and it was never heard from again. That is why men in the 20th century held to a similar covenant theology. If Whipps would like to present an argument that the confessional baptist resurgence and their subsequent development of covenant theology was influenced by Gill, I’m all ears. But from my readings, those men were not very big fans of Gill on the whole. Perhaps others like James White or Whipps himself were more influenced by Gill. Regardless of whether modern baptists were influenced by Gill in the development of their covenant theology, they still weren’t exposed to 1689 Federalism because it was lost with the loss of confessionalism and historic baptist texts. And men like James White who saw the value in Owen’s Hebrews commentary didn’t fully grasp all that Owen was arguing as it related to 1689 Federalism.

armennazarian
@NWhite_GA @RazorsKiss so what was dominant in 18/19th century then? 1689F?
Jul 25, 2016, 8:13 AM
RazorsKiss
@armennazarian I’ve never read anything of the sort from that time period. As far as I know, everyone parallels Gill, more or less.
Jul 25, 2016, 8:14 AM
armennazarian
@RazorsKiss if 1689F was “lost” in 18/19 C and Gills position was the dominant in that period, calling it the 20thC view is even more weird
Jul 25, 2016, 8:19 AM
RazorsKiss
@armennazarian Exactly. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, internally.
Jul 25, 2016, 8:19 AM

It is not remotely true that 1689 Federalism ceased to be held after Gill wrote his Body of Doctrinal Divinity in 1767. I have by no means read all of the available historical work, but here is a sampling of proponents of robust 1689 Federalism during and after that time:

I have not encountered any works on baptist covenant theology written during that time period that argue for the 1 covenant with multiple administrations view. They may exist. I just haven’t seen them.

It is also worth noting that far from falling out of prominence during this time, the rejection of Westminster Federalism in favor of the subservient covenant view (developed further by Owen) gained popularity among reformed theologians. For example:

Gill’s One Covenant of Grace Under Multiple Administrations

All of the above was merely to clarify some issues that have been confused. I am much less interested in arguments about people and history than I am about ideas. I would much rather discuss the concept of 1689 Federalism. So let’s do that.

First, let me note that, as a high Calvinist who recognizes the necessity of logic in our interpretation of Scripture, I like Gill (even though I think he errs on a few points like eternal justification).

Whipps points to Gill’s discussion of the covenant of grace in his Body of Doctrinal Divinity, which is the same material I read many years ago, leading me to make the footnote/disclaimer that Gill held this view.

The covenant of grace is but one and the same in all ages, of which Christ is the substance… The patriarchs before the flood and after, before the law of Moses and under it, before the coming of Christ, and all the saints since, are saved in one and the same way, even “by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”; and that is the grace of the covenant, exhibited at different times, and in divers manners.

For though the covenant is but one, there are different administrations of it; particularly two, one before the coming of Christ, and the other after it; which lay the foundation for the distinction of the “first” and “second”, the “old” and the “new” covenant, observed by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 8:7, 8, 13; 9:1, 15; 12:24), for by the first and old covenant, is not meant the covenant of works made with Adam, which had been broke and abrogated long ago… but by it is meant the first and most ancient administration of the covenant of grace which reached from the fall of Adam, when the covenant of works was broke, unto the coming of Christ, when it was superseded and vacated by another administration of the same covenant, called therefore the “second” and “new” covenant.

The one we commonly call the Old Testament dispensation, and the other the New Testament dispensation; for which there seems to be some foundation in 2 Corinthians 3:6, 14 and Hebrews 9:15 these two covenants, or rather the two administrations of the same covenant, are allegorically represented by two women, Hagar and Sarah, the bondwoman and the free (Gal. 4:22-26), which fitly describe the nature and difference of them. And before I proceed any farther, I shall just point out the agreement and disagreement of those two administrations of the covenant of grace.

BDD IV.I

…the word signifies both covenant and testament, and some have called it a covenant testament, or a testamentary covenant; hence the different administrations of the covenant of grace in time, are called the first and second, the Old and New Testament; and even the books of scripture, written under those different dispensations, are so distinguished (see Heb. 8:1-13; 2 Cor. 3:6, 14).

BDD II.VII

Seems like a pretty clear articulation of the Westminster doctrine that all post-fall covenants are the one and the same covenant, though differently administer, and therefore the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace, not a covenant of works for life in the land. But…

Gill’s Multiple Post-Fall Covenants Distinct From the Covenant of Grace

A closer reading of Book IV reveals something interesting.

The next period of time in which an exhibition of the covenant of grace was made, is that from Noah to Abraham… The covenant made with Noah, though it was not the special covenant of grace, being made with him and all his posterity, and even with all creatures; yet as it was a covenant of preservation, it was a covenant of kindness and goodness in a temporal way; and it bore a resemblance to the covenant of grace;

Gill distinguishes between the Noahic Covenant and the “exhibition of the covenant of grace” that was made to Noah.

But what more especially deserve attention, are the various appearances of God unto Abraham, and the manifestations of the covenant of grace then made unto hima further manifestation of the covenant of gracea display of covenant graceThe same covenant of grace that was manifested to Abraham and Isaac, was repeated and made known to Jacobbesides the covenant of circumcision, God gave to him, and his natural seed of the male gender, and a promise of the land of Canaan to his posterity

Again Gill distinguishes between the Covenant of Circumcision and the manifestations and displays of the covenant of grace “made known to” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Thus the covenant of grace was exhibited, held forth, displayed, and manifested in the grace and blessings of it in the times of the patriarchs.” He speaks of the covenant of grace “displayed,” “held forth,” “manifested,” “exhibited,” and “showed forth” at the time of “Moses [who] was a mediator when the covenant on Sinai was given,” which was a national covenant. “The blessing of adoption is another covenant [of grace] blessing, spoken of by the prophets; not national adoption, included in the national covenant made with the people of Israel; but adoption by special grace.” He then moves on to David and distinguishes between the covenant of royalty and the special covenant of grace, which was “displayed,” and “made known.”

David, who was a prophet, and by whom the Spirit of God spake concerning Christ, and the covenant of grace made with him (Acts 2:30; 1:16; 2 Sam. 23:2-5). The grace of the covenant was displayed in him, the blessings of it were bestowed on him, the covenant itself was made with him; not only the covenant of royalty, concerning the succession of the kingdom of Israel in his family; but the special covenant of grace, in which his own salvation lay; a covenant ordered in all things and sure, and an everlasting one (2 Sam. 23:5)... Solomon, the Son of David, and his successor in the kingdom, had not only the covenant of royalty established with him, but the special covenant of grace was made with him, or made known unto him; “I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son” (2 Sam. 7:14).

This begins to sound very similar to 1689 Federalism’s articulation of the Covenant of Grace (the promise) revealed within the distinct historical post-fall covenants. If you read through the whole section you will see that Gill is not focusing on explaining each post-fall covenant. Rather, he is marching through redemptive history showing all the ways in which the gospel was revealed.

Gill’s Sinai Covenant of Works

In his discussion of the Adamic Covenant of Works, Gill rightly distinguishes between the law and the law as a covenant of works – an important aspect of 1689 Federalism taught in LBCF 7.1.

This law given to Adam, taken in its complex view, as both natural and positive, was in the form of a covenant… The law given to Adam, as it was a law, sprung from the sovereignty of God, who had a right to impose a law upon him, whatsoever he thought fit; as it was a covenant, it was an act of condescension and goodness in God, to enter into it with man, his creature; he could have required obedience to his law, without promising anything on account of it; for it is what God has a prior right unto, and therefore a recompence for it cannot be claimed; if, therefore, God thinks fit, for the encouragement of obedience, to promise in covenant any good, it is all condescension, it is all kindness… And it is frequently called the “legal” covenant, the covenant of “works”, as the Scripture calls it, “the law of works”, as before observed; it promised life on the performance of good works; its language was, “Do this and live”. And it sometimes has the name of the covenant of life from the promise of life in it.

BDD III.VII

But notice how he compares this to the Sinai Covenant.

It contained a promise; which was a promise of life, of natural life to Adam, and of a continuation of it so long as he should observe the condition of it; just as life was promised to the Israelites, and a continuance in it, in the land of Canaan, so long as they should observe the law of God…

He clearly parallels Adam’s obedience to the law and his reward with Israel’s obedience to the law and their reward. He distinguishes between the Old Covenant, which was the Covenant of Grace administered from the fall to Christ, and the Sinai Covenant.

[F]or though in Hebrews 8:7, 13 we read of a first and second, an old and a new covenant; yet these respect one and the same covenant, under different dispensations; and though in the passage referred to [Hosea 6:7], the covenant at Sinai may be intended as one, yet as a repetition, and a new edition of the covenant made with Adam.

The law was given on Mt. Sinai as a typical covenant of works. The covenant of grace was administered/revealed under this typical covenant of works.

Now the law of Moses, for matter and substance, is the same with the law of nature, though differing in the form of administration; and this was renewed in the times of Moses, that it might be confirmed, and that it might not be forgotten, and be wholly lost out of the minds of men… It was not delivered as a pure covenant of works, though the self-righteous Jews turned it into one, and sought for life and righteousness by it: and so it engendered to bondage, and became a killing letter; nor a pure covenant of grace, though it was given as a distinguishing favour to the people of Israel (Deut. 4:6, 8; Ps. 147:19, 20; Rom. 9:4) and much mercy and kindness are expressed in it; and it is prefaced with a declaration of the Lord being the God of Israel, who had, of his great goodness, brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex 20:2, 6, 12). But it was a part and branch of the typical covenant, under which the covenant of grace was administered under the former dispensation; and of what it was typical… [The law of God] does not continue as a covenant of works; and, indeed, it was not delivered to the children of Israel as such strictly and properly sneaking, only in a typical sense

BDD IV.VI

Gill elaborates a bit more in his Exposition of the Bible.

Leviticus 18:5 Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments The same as before; these they were to keep in their minds and memories, and to observe them and do them: which if a man do he shall live in them; live a long life in the land of Canaan, in great happiness and prosperity, see (Deuteronomy 30:20; Isaiah 1:19); for as for eternal life, that was never intended to be had, nor was it possible it could be had and enjoyed by obedience to the law, which fallen man is unable to keep; but is what was graciously promised and provided the covenant of grace, before the world was, to come through Christ, as a free gift to all that believe in him, see (Galatians 3:11-12, 21); though some Jewish writers interpret this of eternal life, as Jarchi, Aben Ezra, and Ben Gersom: I [am] the Lord; that has enjoined these statutes and judgments, and promised life to the doers of them, able and faithful to perform what is promised.Isaiah 1:19 If ye be willing and obedient The Targum adds, “to my Word”: the Word made flesh, and dwelling among them; who would have gathered the inhabitants of Jerusalem to his ministry, to attend his word and ordinances, but their rulers would not: ye shall eat the good of the land; the land of Canaan; as the Jews held the possession of that land, before the times of Christ, by their obedience to the laws of God, which were given them as a body politic, and which, so long as they observed, they were continued in the quiet and full enjoyment of all the blessings of it; so, when Christ came, had they received, embraced, and acknowledged him as the Messiah, and been obedient to his will, though only externally, they would have remained in their own land, and enjoyed all the good things in it undisturbed by enemies.

Deuteronomy 30:20

That thou mayest love the Lord thy God
And show it by keeping his commands:

[and] that thou mayest obey his voice;
in his word, and by his prophets:

and that thou mayest cleave unto him;
and to his worship, and not follow after and serve other gods:

for he [is] thy life, and the length of thy days;
the God of their lives, and the Father of their mercies; the giver of long life, and all the blessings of it; and which he had promised to those that were obedient, to him, and which they might expect:

that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thyfathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them;
the land of Canaan, often thus described; this was the grand promise made to obedience to the law, and was typical of eternal life and happiness; which is had, not through man’s obedience to the law, but through the obedience and righteousness of Christ.

Galatians 3:12 And the law is not of faith the law does not consist of faith in Christ, nor does it require it, and that a man should live by it upon his righteousness; it is the Gospel that reveals the righteousness of Christ, and directs and encourages men to believe in him and be saved; nor does the law take any notice of a man’s faith; nor has it anything to do with a man as a believer, but as a doer, in the point of justification: but the man that doth them shall live in them; the passage referred to, is in (Leviticus 18:5), the word “them”, relates to the statutes and judgments, not of the ceremonial, but of the moral law, which are equally obligatory on Gentiles as on Jews. The Jewish doctors F24 observe on those words, that “it is not said, priests, Levites, and Israelites, but (Mdah) , “the man”; lo, you learn from hence, that even a Gentile that studies in the law, is as an high priest:” so that whatever man does the things contained in the law, that is, internally as well as externally, for the law is spiritual, reaches the inward part of man, and requires truth there, a conformity of heart and thought unto it, and that does them perfectly and constantly, without the least failure in matter or manner of obedience, such shall live in them and by them; the language of the law is, do this and live; so life, and the continuation of that happy natural life which Adam had in innocence, was promised to him, in case of his persisting in his obedience to the law; and so a long and prosperous life was promised to the Israelites in the land of Canaan, provided they observed the laws and statutes which were commanded them: but since eternal life is a promise made before the world began, is provided for in an everlasting covenant, is revealed in the Gospel, and is the pure gift of God’s grace through Christ, it seems that it never was the will of God that it should be obtained by the works of the law; and which is a further proof that there can be no justification in the sight of God by them, see ( Galatians 3:21).

Gill’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works

We find a similar concept in Gill’s view of the Covenant of Circumcision. He addresses this most fully in his section on Baptism in his Body of Practical Divinity (III.I).

It is not fact, as has been asserted, that the “infants of believers” have, with their parents, been taken into covenant with God in the former ages of the church, if by it is meant the covenant of graceThe next covenant is that made with Abraham and his seed, on which great stress is laid (Gen. 17:10-14)… Now that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, but rather a covenant of works, will soon be provedthat it is not the covenant of grace is clear… Now nothing is more opposite to one another than circumcision and grace; circumcision is a work of the law…

It appears to be a covenant of works, and not of grace; since it was to be kept by men, under a severe penalty. Abraham was to keep it, and his seed after him; something was to be done by them, their flesh to be circumcised, and a penalty was annexed, in case of disobedience or neglect; such a soul was to be cut off from his people: all which shows it to be, not a covenant of grace, but of works. It is plain, it was a covenant that might be broken; of the uncircumcised it is said, “He hath broken my covenant,” (Gen. 17:14) whereas the covenant of grace cannot be brokenIt is certain it had things in it of a civil and temporal naturethings that can have no place in the pure covenant of grace

Compare with Coxe “In this mode of transacting it [the Covenant of Circumcision], the Lord was pleased to draw the first lines of that form of covenant relationship in which the natural seed of Abraham was fully stated by the law of Moses, which was a covenant of works with its condition or terms, ‘Do this and live.'” (91)

Again, Gill distinguishes between the Covenant of Circumcision and the Covenant of Grace manifested to Abraham.

Nor is this covenant the same with what is referred to in Galatians 3:17 said to be “confirmed of God in Christ,” [compare with BDD IV.II.III “the manifestations of the covenant of grace then made unto him… is clear from Galatians 3:17 where it is said to be “confirmed before of God in Christ;” which certainly designs the covenant of grace”]… The covenant of grace was made with Christ, as the federal head of the elect in him, and that from everlasting, and who is the only head of that covenant, and of the covenant ones: if the covenant of grace was made with Abraham, as the head of his natural and spiritual seed, Jews and Gentiles; there must be two heads of the covenant of grace… Allowing Abraham’s covenant to be a peculiar one, and of a mixed kind, containing promises of temporal things to him, and his natural seed, and of spiritual things to his spiritual seed; or rather, that there was at the same time when the covenant of circumcision was given to Abraham and his natural seed, a fresh manifestation of the covenant of grace made with him and his spiritual seed in Christ.

Gill is very clearly looking at it similarly to Coxe (though I think Coxe handles it with more accuracy).

The covenant of circumcision, or the covenant which gave Abraham’s infant children a right to circumcision, is not the covenant of grace; for the covenant of circumcision must be more certainly, in the nature of it, a covenant of works, and not of grace. It will be freely allowed, that the covenant of grace was at certain times made, and made manifest, and applied to Abraham, and he interested in it…

[A]t the same time the covenant of circumcision was given unto him, there was an exhibition of the covenant of grace unto him: the account of both is mixed together, but then the covenant of circumcision, which was a covenant of peculiarity, belonged only to him and his natural male seed, was quite a distinct thing from the covenant of grace, since it included some that were not in the covenant of grace, and excluded others that were in it [Coxe makes this point at length]: nor is that the covenant that was confirmed of God in Christ 430 years before the law was; since the covenant of circumcision falls 24 years short of that date, and therefore refers not to that, but to an exhibition of the covenant of grace to Abraham, about the time of his call out of CHaldea; besides the covenant of circumcision is abolished, but the covenant of grace continues and ever will…

Some Strictures on Mr. Bostwick’s Fair and Rational Vindication… (30-31)

Gills’ Covenant of Grace

This can all be summarized in a sermon Gill gave on 2 Samuel 23:5. “Although my house be not so with God, yet he hath made with me and everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure.”

Here is a strong expression of covenant interest: yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant. What is this covenant that God had made with David? and with whom made? It cannot be the covenant of works made with Adam… Nor yet the covenant of circumcision (as it is called) made with Abraham: that is done away, being a yoke that neither the Jews nor their forefathers could bear. This was so far from being ordered in all things and sure, that the apostle declares, to those who complied with it, Christ is become of no effect unto you. Whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace.

Nor is this the Sinai covenant; for that was not an everlasting one. It is abolished and done away. Not ordered in all things and sure, for it gave way; otherwise there would have been no need for a second, as the apostle argues…

[H]e may have respect either to the covenant of royalty, that there should not want one to sit upon his throne… But then this must be understood with respect to his more remote and glorious offspring, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ…

The covenant which the sweet Psalmist of Israel, in his last dying words, has respect unto, is the covenant of grace: founded on grace; filled with the blessings of grace. It is called the covenant of peace because a grand article of it is peace and reconciliation with God, by Jesus Christ. He was sent to be our peace; to make peace for us by the blood of his cross…

When, therefore, God is said to make a covenant with men; the meaning is, he manifests his covenant made with Jesus Christ from all eternity. Therefore, when David says, he hath made with me an everlasting covenant; the meaning is, he hath made it manifest to me, that I have an interest in his everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure.

Conclusion

Thus it would appear that Gill did not outright reject 1689 Federalism at all. He agrees that the Covenant of Grace was manifested/revealed under or by other post-fall covenants, which were covenants of works. His use of the “same covenant under two administrations” language may stem from his attempt to wrestle with the temporal concerns of identifying the Covenant of Grace with the New Covenant. He also was clearly influenced on many points by Keach, who identified the Covenant of Redemption with the Covenant of Grace. Compare Gill above with Tom Hicks, Jr.’s summary of Keach’s covenant theology. Gill says that “the covenant of grace is but one and the same in all ages” in order to clarify that “all the saints since, are saved in one and the same way.” Therefore the New Covenant was not the first introduction introduction of God’s saving grace. He thus interprets the Old and New as referring to the manifestations of the Covenant of Grace, wherein he distinguishes it in its “pure” form from the mixed Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants themselves. In my opinion this becomes rather convoluted. Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 8 is much more precise.

So some of Gill’s language agrees with the 20th century view, but he disagrees with the 20th century view on two important points. First, the 20th century view argues that the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace with a gracious giving of the law showing a redeemed people how to live. This is actually one of Whipps’ concerns. He said he is suspicious of 1689 Federalism because it seems to be a modern movement that arose from a seminary associated with Meredith Kline’s republication doctrine. But as we have seen, Gill would agree with Kline that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works for temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan as typical of Christ’s obedience to the law. Thus Gill does not agree with the 20th century view.

Second, the 20th century view believes that under older administrations, the Covenant of Grace did include unregenerate members, but now under the New Covenant it does not. Gill did not hold that view. He said the Covenant of Grace only ever included the elect. The reprobate were part of the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants, but not part of the Covenant of Grace. Thus Gill does not agree with the 20th century view here as well.

The point here is not to count noses. The point is to work together to better understand Scripture. I believe that 1689 Federalism brings tremendous clarity to what Scripture teaches and therefore I have endeavored to clear away all misunderstandings that hinder us from seeing Scripture clearly. Hopefully this has been helpful.

Union with Christ is the New Covenant

April 9, 2017 9 comments

Patrick Ramsey has a short piece on union with Christ at Meet the Puritans. Some brief comments:

“Actual” Union

It is possible to speak of a union between Christ and the elect in terms of the decree and the federal headship of Christ. But these senses are quite different from an actual or mystical union and are not under our purview.

This refers to the standard three-fold distinction of union with Christ referring to three points in time: eternity, the cross, and conversion. The problem, however, is that we are not federally united with Christ until conversion. Prior to that we are federally “in Adam” and you can’t be both “in Adam” and “in Christ” at the same time. Separating “actual” union from federal union is a tremendous, but very common mistake. Owen does a good job of explaining that Christ and the elect are united at the cross only in the plan and intention of God (via the Covenant of Redemption). Christ does not become our federal head/representative/surety until we enter the Covenant of Grace.

Effectual Call

An actual union with Christ refers to the moment when a sinner is united to Christ at his conversion, or in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, in his effectual calling (Q&A 66-67).

This is another very important point. In Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray states

It is calling that is represented in Scripture as that act of God by which we are actually united to Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9)… [S]alvation in actual possession takes its start from an efficacious summons on the part of God and that this summons, since it is God’s summons, carries in its bosom all of the operative efficacy by which it is made effective. It is calling and not regeneration that possesses that character.

In the effectual call we are federally united to Christ and all the benefits he earned become ours because the effectual call is God making the Covenant of Grace (New Covenant) with us. In his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, John Owen explains

[I]n 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…

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.

or Faith?

However, many argue that union with Christ is established through faith, after the effectual call. This leads to a significant logical dilemma: where does faith come from if it does not come from our union with Christ? Owen explains

(1.) God’s reckoning Christ, in our present sense, is the imputing of Christ unto ungodly, unbelieving sinners for whom he died, so far as to account him theirs, and to bestow faith and grace upon them for his sake.

This, then, I say, at the accomplishment of the appointed time, the Lord reckons, and accounts, and makes out his Son Christ, to such and such sinners, and for his sake gives them faith, etc. Exercising of love actually, in the bestowing of grace upon any particular soul, in a distinguishing manner, for Christ’s sake, doth suppose this accounting of Christ to be his; and from thence he is so indeed, — which is the present thesis.

And, — (2.) This may be proved; for, — [1.] Why doth the Lord bestow faith on Peter, not on Judas? Because Christ dying for Peter, and purchasing for him the grace of the covenant, he had a right unto it, and God according to his promise bestowed it; with Judas, it was not so. But then, why doth the Lord bestow faith on Peter at the fortieth year of his age, and not before or after? Because then the term was expired which, upon the purchase, was by the counsel of God’s will prefixed to the giving in the beginning of the thing purchased unto him.

What, then, doth the Lord do when he thus bestoweth faith on him? For Christ’s sake, — his death procuring the gift, not moving the will of the giver, — he creates faith in him by the way and means suited to such a work, Ephesians 1:18,19, 2:1, etc. If, then, this be done for Christ’s sake, then is Christ made ours before we believe. Else, why is faith given him at this instant for Christ’s sake, and not to another, for whom also he died? That it is done then, is because the appointed time is come; that it is done then for Christ, is because Christ is first given to him. I cannot conceive how any thing should be made out to me for Christ, and Christ himself not be given to me

Union must precede faith. Ramsey attempts a nuanced remedy.

The Catechism’s definition of effectual calling is broad, however, and it includes both the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and the sinner’s personal act of faith. It thus allows for one to place union in connection with regeneration or with faith or with both. Since union involves a reciprocal relationship or what Reynolds called a mutual act, wherein “Christ exhibiteth himself unto us, and we adhere and dwell in him,” it is theologically legitimate to do all three.

This is fine if we first understand all that has been argued above and then understand faith’s role in terms of covenant “restipulation.” All covenants require a response of some kind. Nehemiah Coxe notes

If the Covenant be of Works, the Restipulation must be, by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to the Law of it…But if it be a Covenant of free and soveraign Grace, the Restipulation required, is an humble receiving, or hearty believing of those gratuitous Promises on which the Covenant is established. (9)

So union with Christ can be said to be through faith insofar as reception through faith is our restipulation to the New Covenant (Covenant of Grace). But it must be understood that the union is established by God prior to our restipulation. Owen concludes

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.

Conclusion

[T]he covenant of grace does not first arise as a result of the order of salvation but precedes it and is its foundation and starting point. While it is true that the believer first, by faith, becomes aware that he or she belongs to the covenant of grace and to the number of the elect, the epistemological ground is distinct from the ontological ground.

In the second place, therefore, regeneration, faith, and conversion are not preparations that occur apart from Christ and the covenant of grace nor conditions that a person has to meet in toto or in part in his or her own strength to be incorporated in that covenant. Rather, they are benefits that already flow from the covenant of grace, the mystical union, the granting of Christ’s person. The Holy Spirit, who is the author of these benefits, was acquired by Christ for his own. Hence the imputation of Christ precedes the gift of the Spirit, and regeneration, faith, and conversion do not first lead us to Christ but are taken from Christ by the Holy Spirit and imparted to his own.

Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, p. 524

Union with Christ is the New Covenant, which God makes with the elect in the effectual call. All redemptive blessings earned by Christ flow to the elect sinner through the New Covenant as the backbone of the ordo salutis.

For a much more detailed discussion, see New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen.