Reformed paedobaptists introduced the concept of substance and accidents into the discussion of covenant theology and wound up creating a rather convoluted mess of things.
The substance/accidents distinction goes back to Aristotle. A simple summary:
Aristotle made a distinction between the essential and accidental properties of a thing. For example, a chair can be made of wood or metal, but this is accidental to its being a chair: that is, it is still a chair regardless of the material from which it is made. To put this in technical terms, an accident is a property which has no necessary connection to the essence of the thing being described.
To take another example, all bachelors are unmarried: this is a necessary or essential property of what it means to be a bachelor. A particular bachelor may have brown hair, but this would be a property particular to that individual, and with respect to his bachelorhood it would be an accidental property.
The concept is liable to abuse. The Roman Catholic Church has used it to explain transubstantiation.
In the first place, the holy Synod teaches, and openly and simply professes, that, in the august sacrament of the holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species [accidents] of those sensible things…
And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which He offered under the species of bread to be truly His own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, that, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation…
CANON lI.-If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species [accidents] Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.
In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther notes
2.23 The second captivity of this sacrament is less grievous so far as the conscience is concerned, yet the very gravest danger threatens the man who would attack it, to say nothing of condemning it. Here I shall be called a Wycliffite and a heretic a thousand times over. But what of that? Since the Roman bishop has ceased to be a bishop and become a tyrant, I fear none of his decrees, for I know that it is not in his power, nor even in that of a general council, to make new articles of faith. Years ago, when I was delving into scholastic theology, the Cardinal of Cambrai gave me food for thought, in his comments on the fourth Book of the Sentences, where he argues with great acumen that to hold that real bread and real wine, and not their accidents only, are present on the altar, is much more probable and requires fewer unnecessary miracles – if only the Church had not decreed otherwise. When I learned later what church it was that had decreed this – namely, the Church of Thomas, i.e., of Aristotle – I waxed bolder, and after floating in a sea of doubt, at last found rest for my conscience in the above view – namely, that it is real bread and real wine, in which Christ’s real flesh and blood are present, not otherwise and not less really than they assume to be the case under their accidents. I reached this conclusion because I saw that the opinions of the Thomists, though approved by pope and council, remain but opinions and do not become articles of faith, even though an angel from heaven were to decree otherwise. For what is asserted without Scripture or an approved revelation, may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed. But this opinion of Thomas hangs so completely in the air, devoid of Scripture and reason, that he seems here to have forgotten both his philosophy and his logic. For Aristotle writes about subject and accidents so very differently from St. Thomas, that I think this great man is to be pitied, not only for drawing his opinions in matters of faith from Aristotle, but for attempting to base them on him without understanding his meaning – an unfortunate superstructure upon an unfortunate foundation…
2.26 Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand “bread” to mean “the form, or accidents of bread,” and “wine” to mean “the form, or accidents of wine.” Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning.
Responding to Anabaptists
In an attempt to maintain the Constantinian concept of a state church founded upon infant baptism, reformed theologians stole from the Roman playbook and called upon Aristotle. Arguing that the Old and New Covenants are actually the same covenant, Bullinger says
[T]he nomenclature of the old and new covenant, spirit, and people did not arise from the very essence (substantia) of the covenant but from certain foreign and unessential things (accidentibus) because the diversity of the times recommended that now this, now that be added according to the [difference] of the Jewish people. These additions (accessere) did not exist as perpetual and particularly necessary things for salvation, but they arose as changeable things according to the time, the persons, and the circumstances. The covenant itself could easily continue without them. 
Joshua Moon notes “Bullinger’s reading, and the positing of a unity of substance and contrast of accidents, shows what will emerge as the boundary markers of Reformed thought on the subject. Such language becomes common for the Reformed and will influence the whole of the tradition through the period of orthodoxy and into the contemporary Reformed world.”
Olevianus was a trained humanist as well as a theologian. He learned Aristotle at university and particularly the Organon. As part of his education he learned the traditional Christian appropriation of the distinction between the substance of a thing, i.e., its essence, and its accidents or external appearance.We make this distinction all the time. If you have a smart phone you probably have some sort of cover. The cover is not the phone. It is accidental to the phone. The same is true of your computer. The outer shell that houses your computer isn’t actually the computer. Things like the motherboard, those are the computer… The substance of a thing is what makes it what it is, the thing without which it doesn’t exist. The accidents or circumstances are the administration of the covenant of grace.
Calvin followed the same play.
All this leads to the conclusion, that the difference between us and the ancient fathers lies in accidents, not in substance. In all the leading characters of the Testament or Covenant we agree: the ceremonies and form of government, in which we differ, are mere additions.
Both covenants [are] truly one, though differently administered… The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs.
J.V. Fesko notes
What changes, therefore, in the transition from the OT to the NT is not the covenant, but rather the form or administration of the covenant (2.11.13). Here then is what one may describe as Aristotelian language in the use of the distinction between substance and form, which was commonplace in the theology of Calvin’s day.
Cornelius Venema summarizes
When Calvin and subsequent Reformed theologians employ the language of “substance” and “form” or “accidents” to refer to the distinct administrations of the one covenant of grace throughout history, they are employing a traditional category distinction from the philosophy of Aristotle. “Substance” refers to “what makes something what it is,” “accidents” refers to what belongs “contingently” to something.
Administration = Accidents
The accidents of the covenant of grace were identified with its “administration,” referring to various ordinances and ceremonies. WCF 7.5-6 identify these as “promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come” as well as “the preaching of the Word, and… the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
Substance = Salvation in Christ
The substance, then, refers to what is being administered: salvation in Christ.
[T]he comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy.
-Calvin, Commentary Hebrews 8:6
How did the Olevianus and others define the substance or essence of the covenant of grace? “I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.” Embedded in this prophetic articulation of the covenant of grace is essentially or substantially the same promise he had made to Adam, after the fall (Gen 3), to Noah (Gen 6), and to Abraham (Gen 17). Embedded in that re-articulation is the ancient promise to send a redeemer who would turn away the wrath we earned and to earn righteousness for all his people. This, Olevianus would go on to say is the first benefit of the covenant of grace: “free forgiveness of sins in Christ,” i.e., unconditional acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone…
When our theologians, whether Olevianus in the 16th century or Witsius in the 17th century, wrote about the “substance of the covenant” they were writing about the same way God has always saved and sanctified his people whether under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David or Christ. There is a unified covenant of grace.
-R. Scott Clark, What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace? (2)
Accidents = Shadows?
I’m not certain when it was first articulated, but an important twist occurs as the concept is further developed.
WCF 7.6 Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.
Notice the two uses of the word “substance”. The argument is that because Christ is the substance, there are not two different covenants, but only one. However, note Scripture reference : “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV) Thus the first mention of “substance” refers to a shadow/substance distinction, or what we could call a type/anti-type distinction. One thing points forward to something else. However, the second use of “substance” refers to the substance/accidents distinction.
Are these two distinctions the same thing? Was Paul using Aristotelian categories when he spoke of shadows and substance? No. They are two different concepts. Two different distinctions. The shadow/substance distinction refers to a way of teaching or speaking about something by way of analogy or comparison. The substance/accidents distinction refers to defining the essence of something.
The Westminster tradition has conflated these two things and built a labyrinth around themselves that they are now trapped in. It has stunted their typology. The recent OPC Report on Republication addresses this point (in order to show how Kline’s typology is contrary to the WCF).
According to our doctrinal standards the substance of the covenant of grace is Christ. The covenant was fulfilled “under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited” (WCF 7.6). Christ supplies the substance (or blessings) of the covenant of grace due to the dignity of his person and the merit of his work… Whether we are speaking of the types and pictures of Christ in the old covenant or the reality and fullness of Christ in the new, what is applied to God’s elect, in principle, is the same. Although the ceremonies, sacrifices, and ordinances of the Mosaic covenant were types of Christ, the efficacy of what they pictured was communicated through them to the elect of Israel…
However, it is also true that some Reformed theologians have seen the idea of substance in a more technical way; namely, the core condition that governs the covenant. Thus, when the condition is essentially the same, the covenant is also essentially the same; and when the condition differs, so does the essence of the covenant. For example, Zacharias Ursinus argues that the “substance of the covenant” is “the principal conditions” of the covenant… The confession seems to communicate this basic idea when it states that the Old and New Testament are not “two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”…
The confession addresses these differences [between the Old and New Covenants] by the way in which the covenant itself is administered, and by the way in which the blessings of the covenant are enjoyed. It does this by organizing these two issues through its unified treatment and emphasis on typology… The covenant of grace was administered in the time of the law “by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances.” The phrase, “other types and ordinances” shows that typology functions as a general rubric to summarize the symbols and ordinances of the old covenant. The standards remind us that those types were “sufficient and efficacious” for the time of the law and by them believing Israelites enjoyed the “full remission of sins, and eternal salvation” (WCF 7.5). Yet this is true only because they were more than symbols for that covenant administration. They also functioned as types of the fullness to be unveiled with Christ’s coming. Their ultimate efficacy is dependent upon their functioning as types.
By adding obedience to the ceremonial law to the essential condition of the covenant, the subservient covenant position gives Mosaic typology a fundamentally works-based character, rather than an evangelical one. Proponents did not deny that these various types also signified spiritual benefits, but they insisted that they only did so “secondarily” or indirectly, while their primary reference was to temporal things promised in the covenant.169
 Cameron put it this way: “The Sacraments, Sacrifices, and Ceremonies of the Old Testament did set forth Christ, and the Benefits by Christ; not primarily, but secondarily…but the Sacraments of the New Covenant do shew forth Christ primarily, and that clearly” (as translated by Samuel Bolton in his True Boundes, 399). Thus circumcision primarily signified the separation between the seed of Abraham and the rest of the nations and sealed to them the earthly promise. The Passover primarily signified the passing over of the destroying Angel. The sacrifices and washings primarily represented only a carnal holiness. Only secondarily did these benefits signify Christ.
From a confessional viewpoint, the basic weakness here is that it reverses the true biblical priority of Christ as the substance and primary signification of these types and shadows. According to our standards, the purpose of these various types and ordinances was to function as an aspect of the covenant of grace, being means of administering the eternal and salvific blessings procured by Christ (WCF 7.5, 8.6, 17.5). He is the “substance” of the types and ordinances (not merely their secondary referent), even as he is the substance of God’s covenant of grace (WCF 7.6), while all else remains secondary or accidental. The subservient covenant effectively reverses this in insisting that these types primarily signify temporal benefits, and only secondarily signify Christ. As John Cameron stated, the subservient covenant leads to Christ only “indirectly” whereas the covenant of grace leads to him directly. It is difficult to harmonize the idea that Christ was the “substance” of all these types and ordinances and at the same time only their secondary referent…
[A]nything that functions as an “administration” of the covenant of grace must, in fact, administer grace to those who are under it. Such it is with the other types, ceremonies, and other ordinances delivered to the Jews. The administrative aspects of the old covenant were to function as the “outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates” to Israel “the benefits of redemption” (SC 88)… [T]ypology is a subset of the broader category of the administration of the covenant… According to our standards, typology is an aspect of the administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, which in turn is described as the outward means of the Old Testament era for communicating grace to the elect of that era. Saving grace was not simply administered merely as a consequence or by-product of these types.275 Rather, saving grace was present by and in these types, and in this way communicated grace to believers.276 In terms of our confessional definitions, to say that something is an administration of grace means that grace is communicated by and in that thing.
 This seems to be the distinctive typological construction of the subservient covenant position, discussed above.
For more on this view, listen to an interview on the Reformed Forum with Lane Tipton, one of the co-authors of the Report.
Subservient Covenant Typology
I once had a Presbyterian say to me
I always thought Owen’s claims about the Poverty of Types meant he was on a pretty different page from the rest of the presbyterians
“Such was the poverty of the types that no one of them could so much as shadow out or represent all that advantage which we really enjoy and therefore they were multiplied and the work distributed amongst them which they were to represent. This made them a yoke, and that grievous and burdensome. The way of teaching in them and by them was hard and obscure, as well as their observation was difficult. It was a hard thing for them to learn the love, grace, and mind of God by them. God revealed himself in them πολυμερῶς, by many parts and pieces, according as they were capable to receive impression from and make representation of divine wisdom, goodness, and grace; whence our apostle says, that the law had but σκίαν, “a shadow,” and not αὐτὴν τὴν εἰκόνα πραγμάτων, Hebrews 10:1, — “the image itself of things.” It had some scattered shades, which the great limner had laid the foundation of symmetry in, but so as to be discernible only unto his own infinite wisdom. A perfect image, wherein all the parts should exactly answer unto one another, and so plainly represent the thing intended, that it had not. Now, it was a work beyond their wisdom, out of these scattered pieces and parts of revelation, especially being implanted on carnal things, to gather up the whole of the grace and good-will of God. But in Christ Jesus God hath gathered all into one bead, Ephesians 1:10, wherein both his person and grace are fully and at once represented.”
Owen, like 1689 Federalism, held to a version, or refinement of the subservient covenant view, which recognizes that the Old and New Covenants are two different, distinct covenants – not the same covenant. Thus the Old and New are not one in essence or substance. However, it is important to understand that Owen and 1689 Federalism do affirm that Christ is the substance of the the types and shadows of the Old Covenant and that men in the Old Testament were saved through belief in the gospel revealed by those types. They simply recognize that those two uses of “substance” are two different concepts.
Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.
Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.
That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that [new] covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ
-Owen on Hebrews 8:6
The types and shadows of the Old Covenant revealed the gospel and people were saved by believing that gospel, but the Old Covenant did not therefore save them because it did not establish union with Christ. The New Covenant is our union with Christ. The Old Covenant types were the means that God used to reveal the gospel but it was the New Covenant union established in the effectual call that saved the elect living under the Old Covenant.
[Side Note: Klineans do not properly understand the use of Aristotelian “substance” in WCF 7.6 and the reformed tradition to affirm that the Old and the New are the same covenant. They reject that idea and say the Old and New are two distinct covenants, but they still try to argue that they affirm 7.6. They simply don’t understand what 7.6 is saying – and part of that is because 7.6 conflates two different ideas about substance: one they affirm and one they do not. For more on this point, see Kline on “Administration of the Covenant of Grace” and Episodes 4-6 of the Glory Cloud Podcast. Owen properly understood the meaning of terms and therefore rejected WCF 7.6.]
The OPC Report notes “It is difficult to harmonize the idea that Christ was the ‘substance’ of all these types and ordinances and at the same time only their secondary referent.” This difficulty is only created by the mistaken application of substance/accidents. Presbyterians who stumble at this point would do well to listen to Augustine, who addresses what he sees as an error on their part.
City of God
Book XVII: The history of the city of God from the kings and prophets to Christ.
Chapter 3.—Of the Three-Fold Meaning of the Prophecies, Which are to Be Referred Now to the Earthly, Now to the Heavenly Jerusalem, and Now Again to Both.
Wherefore just as that divine oracle to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the other prophetic signs or sayings which are given in the earlier sacred writings, so also the other prophecies from this time of the kings pertain partly to the nation of Abraham’s flesh, and partly to that seed of his in which all nations are blessed as fellow-heirs of Christ by the New Testament, to the possessing of eternal life and the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore they pertain partly to the bond maid who gendereth to bondage, that is, the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; but partly to the free city of God, that is, the true Jerusalem eternal in the heavens, whose children are all those that live according to God in the earth: but there are some things among them which are understood to pertain to both,—to the bond maid properly, to the free woman figuratively. (Gal 4:22-31)
Therefore prophetic utterances of three kinds are to be found; forasmuch as there are some relating to the earthly Jerusalem, some to the heavenly, and some to both. I think it proper to prove what I say by examples. The prophet Nathan was sent to convict king David of heinous sin, and predict to him what future evils should be consequent on it. Who can question that this and the like pertain to the terrestrial city, whether publicly, that is, for the safety or help of the people, or privately, when there are given forth for each one’s private good divine utterances whereby something of the future may be known for the use of temporal life? But where we read, “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make for the house of Israel, and for the house of Judah, a new testament: not according to the testament that I settled for their fathers in the day when I laid hold of their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my testament, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the testament that I will make for the house of Israel: after those days, saith the Lord, I will give my laws in their mind, and will write them upon their hearts, and I will see to them; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people;” (Heb 8:8-10) without doubt this is prophesied to the Jerusalem above, whose reward is God Himself, and whose chief and entire good it is to have Him, and to be His. But this pertains to both, that the city of God is called Jerusalem, and that it is prophesied the house of God shall be in it; and this prophecy seems to be fulfilled when king Solomon builds that most noble temple. For these things both happened in the earthly Jerusalem, as history shows, and were types of the heavenly Jerusalem. And this kind of prophecy, as it were compacted and commingled of both the others in the ancient canonical books, containing historical narratives, is of very great significance, and has exercised and exercises greatly the wits of those who search holy writ. For example, what we read of historically as predicted and fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, we must also inquire the allegorical meaning of, as it is to be fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to faith. And so much is this the case, that some have thought there is nothing in these books either foretold and effected, or effected although not foretold, that does not insinuate something else which is to be referred by figurative signification to the city of God on high, and to her children who are pilgrims in this life. But if this be so, then the utterances of the prophets, or rather the whole of those Scriptures that are reckoned under the title of the Old Testament, will be not of three, but of two different kinds. For there will be nothing there which pertains to the terrestrial Jerusalem only, if whatever is there said and fulfilled of or concerning her signifies something which also refers by allegorical prefiguration to the celestial Jerusalem; but there will be only two kinds one that pertains to the free Jerusalem, the other to both. But just as, I think, they err greatly who are of opinion that none of the records of affairs in that kind of writings mean anything more than that they so happened, so I think those very daring who contend that the whole gist of their contents lies in allegorical significations. Therefore I have said they are threefold, not two-fold. Yet, in holding this opinion, I do not blame those who may be able to draw out of everything there a spiritual meaning, only saving, first of all, the historical truth. For the rest, what believer can doubt that those things are spoken vainly which are such that, whether said to have been done or to be yet to come, they do not beseem either human or divine affairs? Who would not recall these to spiritual understanding if he could, or confess that they should be recalled by him who is able?”
A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius.
Chapter 14.—Examination of This Point. The Phrase “Old Testament” Used in Two Senses. The Heir of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament There Were Heirs of the New Testament.
…In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man. But whatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament require the new man to give them effect. And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Rom 9:8) The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. (Gal 4:25, 26) Whence we can easily see who they are that appertain to the earthly, and who to the heavenly kingdom. But then the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.
The Substance of the Old Covenant
If Christ is not the substance, or essence, of the Old Covenant, then what is? Well, substance refers to the essence of something. So, what is essential to any particular covenant – divine or human? Simply put, the parties and the terms.
The OPC Report quotes Thomas Blake explaining that “a covenant entered by the same parties, upon the same terms and propositions on either hand, is the same covenant.” Thus the “substance” of each biblical covenant could be identified as follows:
- Adamic: between God and Adam, representing all humanity, offering eternal life upon the condition of perfect obedience
- Noahic: between God and Noah, representing all humanity, promising never to flood the earth again without condition (or alternatively upon condition of Noah building and entering the ark)
- Abrahamic: between God and Abraham, representing his carnal offspring, promising to give him numerous physical offspring and the land of Canaan for them to dwell in, and also promising that the Messiah will be born from him and will bless all nations
- Mosaic: between God and Israel, mediated by Moses, promising to bless them in the land of Canaan or to curse them in exile upon condition of their obedience to the law of Moses
- Davidic: between God and David, representing his offspring, promising to make them king of Israel and to bless Israel upon condition of their obedience to the law of Moses
- Redemption: between the Father and the Son, promising to grant the Son an kingdom and a redeemed people upon condition of his active and passive obedience
- New: between God and Christ, representing the elect, promising to pour out his Spirit upon them, granting them faith, justification, sanctification, glorification – all the benefits of union with Christ without any antecedent condition on their part
But I prefer to avoid speaking in terms of “substance” and to just speak about the parties and terms of each covenant. And, when a paedobaptist brother echoes Calvin, saying
[T]he comparison made by the Apostle [in Hebrews 8] refers to the form rather than to the substance… The ceremonies of the law… were merely accidents of the covenant, or at least additions and appendages, and, as they are commonly called, accessories, yet because they were the means of administering it, the name of covenant is applied to them…
I simply echo Luther
Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand “covenant” to mean “the form, or accidents of the covenant,” and “wine” to mean “the form, or accidents of wine.” Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning.
[This post was revised and expanded on 8/27/16]
In Romans 8, Paul lays out the truth that nothing can separate the elect Christian from the love of God. The question then arises: how is that true and how is that comforting if Israel, God’s chosen people, have been separated from God? I believe Paul answers the question using the same framework that he explains in Galatians 4.
In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul uses the terms children of flesh and children of promise with a double meaning. The first meaning refers to the physical births of Ishmael and Isaac. “[H]e who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise.” (v23) He notes that Ishmael “born according to the flesh then persecuted” Isaac “who was born according to the Spirit.” (v29)
He then gives takes these facts and gives them a symbolic interpretation and application. “[W]hich things are symbolic.” (v24, NKJV) “Which things are an allegory.” (KJV) “These things are being taken figuratively” (NIV). “These things are illustrations” (HCSB). “Now this may be interpreted allegorically” (ESV). “By the which things another thing is meant” (Geneva). “The which things be said by another understanding.” (Wycliffe) “[W]hich things are allegorized” (Young’s Literal).
Paul allegorizes the historical narrative of Ishmael and Isaac to explain the differences between the Old and New Covenants “For these are the two covenants” (NKJV). “The women represent two covenants” (NIV). “[T]hese women are two covenants” (ESV). “[F]or these mothers are the two Testaments” (Geneva). The mothers of Ishmael and Isaac correspond to these two covenants. “[T]he one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar.”
The two covenants, in turn, correspond to two Jerusalems: one earthly, one heavenly. “[F]or this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free.”
The allegorical correspondence to Ishmael and Isaac are what these two covenants/Jerusalems had given birth to in Paul’s day: Judaizers and Christians. “Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”
After establishing all of these points, Paul then applies the double meaning of the terms children of flesh and children of promise. “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.” (v28) Note that “children of promise” is being used in two different senses. The first sense (v23) referred to the historical narrative of Isaac’s birth as a fulfillment of God’s promise to give Abraham a physical offspring. The second sense refers to eternal salvation as a fulfillment of God’s promise to give Abraham a spiritual offspring (as Paul just established in 3:29). Just as Isaac’s birth was a work of the Spirit apart from Abraham’s work of the flesh (giving birth to Ishmael), so the Christian’s birth is a work of the Spirit apart from his works of the flesh (which the Judaizers insisted upon). In other words, Paul gives Isaac’s birth a typological significance. Commenting on this passage, Augustine said
This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants—the old and the new. One portion of the earthly city became an image of the heavenly city, not having a significance of its own, but signifying another city, and therefore serving, or “being in bondage.” For it was founded not for its own sake, but to prefigure another city; and this shadow of a city was also itself foreshadowed by another preceding figure. For Sarah’s handmaid Agar, and her son, were an image of this image. And as the shadows were to pass away when the full light came, Sarah, the free woman, who prefigured the free city (which again was also prefigured in another way by that shadow of a city Jerusalem), therefore said, “Cast out the bond woman and her son; for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac,” or, as the apostle says, “with the son of the free woman.” In the earthly city, then, we find two things—its own obvious presence, and its symbolic presentation of the heavenly city. And this was typified in the two sons of Abraham,—Ishmael, the son of Agar the handmaid, being born according to the flesh, while Isaac was born of the free woman Sarah, according to the promise. Both, indeed, were of Abraham’s seed; but the one was begotten by natural law, the other was given by gracious promise. In the one birth, human action is revealed; in the other, a divine kindness comes to light.
If we turn to Romans 9, we can see Paul employ the very same reasoning. Augustine saw these as parallel passages.
And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Rom 9:8) The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. (Gal 4:25, 26)
How does God’s Word not fail when Israel has not been saved through the Messiah? Because Israel according to the flesh was never promised eternal salvation through the Messiah. God’s election to eternal salvation is not based on anything any person does, including being born a child of Abraham. To prove this point, Paul demonstrates that even the blessings his “countrymen according to the flesh” received (principally that “according to the flesh, Christ came” from them) were never based upon physical birth but were only given by God’s sovereign election.
Paul’s approach is the same as in Galatians 4. He gives the birth of Isaac a typological interpretation.
6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, 7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” 8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. 9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
Note carefully that the word of promise is “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” That promise refers specifically to Isaac’s physical birth. That particular promise does not apply to Christians. It is not a promise of salvation. But, just as in Galatians 4, Paul uses that historical narrative and applies it typologically to the question of eternal salvation. And just as Paul’s argument in Galatians 4 emphasized the work of the Spirit apart from the Christian’s works, Paul applies the typology of Isaac’s birth in Romans 9 to teach that salvation is rooted in God’s sovereign election apart from works – “not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” He does this by showing that Isaac’s physical birth was according to God’s sovereign election and that Jacob’s selection as the one through whom the Abrahamic Covenant would continue and thus through whom the Messiah would be born was also according to sovereign election. Augustine notes “what we read of historically as predicted and fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, we must also inquire the allegorical [typological] meaning of, as it is to be fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to faith.” Isaac Backus notes “in the fore-mentioned 9th of Romans, Paul evidently shews, that as Israel literally, was chosen out of other people: so that Israel spiritually are chosen out, from among both Jews and Gentiles.” Nehemiah Coxe said “Believers are the children of promise… typified by Isaac, being begotten to God of his own will by the efficacy and grace of his free promise.” (80)
Romans 9:14-23 then addresses the objection that is raised against God’s sovereign election – both “to service” and “to salvation.” v24-33 then return to the question of Israel’s salvation where he demonstrates the Israel that will be saved is the Israel chosen by God “not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles.” Just as “the children of promise” has a double meaning, so too does “Israel.” There is a typological (“my countrymen according to the flesh”) and an anti-typological (“even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles”) Israel. Therefore “[T]hey are not all Israel who are of Israel.” Paul continues his argument through chapter 11, concluding that “all Israel will be saved” (see Irons “Paul’s Theology of Israel’s Future: A Non-Millennial Interpretation of Romans 11”).
This interpretation has the added benefit of more satisfactorily addressing the typical Arminian objection to the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, which argues that Romans 9 is about election to service.
The only approach to Romans 9 that truly addresses the issue of God’s righteousness as it relates to ethnic Israel is that the election spoken of in verses 7–18 is election to service. Paul’s thesis is that God’s word of promise to Israel has not failed (Rom. 9:6a). Why not? The answer is Romans 9:6b (NASB), “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” Here Paul is not distinguishing between two groups within Israel, the saved and the lost, with the ensuing discussion focusing on how God unconditionally makes the distinction. Rather, the contrast is of a different sort altogether. There are two groups, but they are not completely distinct from each other. One is actually inside the other, as a smaller body within a larger body. Both groups are called Israel, but they are different kinds of Israel. The larger one is ethnic Israel, the physical nation as a whole; the smaller belongs to this group but is also distinguished from it as a separate entity, i.e., as the true spiritual Israel, the remnant of true believers who enjoy the blessings of eternal salvation.
But the contrast between these two Israels is not that one is saved while the other is lost. This cannot be, since the smaller (saved) group is also a part of the larger body. What is the difference between these two Israels, and why does Paul even bring it up here? The key difference is that God’s covenant promises to these two groups are not the same. The promises God made to ethnic Israel are different from the promises he has made to spiritual Israel. Paul is saying, in effect, “You think God has been unfair to ethnic Israel because all Jews are not saved? Don’t you know there are two Israels, each with a different set of promises? You are actually confusing these two Israels. You are taking the salvation promises that apply only to the smaller group and are mistakenly trying to apply them to Israel as a whole.”
Here is the point: there are two “chosen peoples,” two Israels; but only remnant Israel has been chosen for salvation. Contrary to what the Jews commonly thought, ethnic Israel as a whole was not chosen for salvation but for service. God’s covenant promises to physical Israel as such had to do only with the role of the nation in God’s historical plan of redemption. Their election was utilitarian, not redemptive. God chose them to serve a purpose. The Jews themselves thought that this election involved the promise of salvation for individuals, but they were simply mistaken. This same mistake lies at the root of the Calvinist view that the election in Romans 9 is election to salvation. This is Piper’s root exegetical error, as he strains mightily to read salvation content into the blessings described in Romans 9:4–5. He concludes that “each of the benefits listed in 9:4, 5 has saving, eschatological implications for Israel,” and then proceeds to try to explain why such benefits were not enjoyed by all Jews. His answer is that God makes a distinction within Israel, unconditionally choosing to apply these saving benefits to only some Jews. Schreiner takes a similar approach, saying that Paul’s thesis in Romans 9–11 as stated in Romans 9:6—that “the word of God has not failed”—refers to God’s promises to save his people Israel.
Even Forlines, an Arminian, interprets God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his seed (as in Gen. 13:14–15; 17:8) as including “the promise of eternal life.” But this is simply not true. The terms of the covenant God made with Abraham and later with Israel as a whole did not include a promise to save anyone simply because he or she was a member of the covenant people. The key promise God made to Abraham and his seed was this: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3 NASB), a promise that was fulfilled when “the Christ according to the flesh” ultimately came from Israel (Rom. 9:5 NASB). All the other promises and blessings were subordinate to this one and were designed to bring about its fulfillment. None involved a promise of eternal salvation for the individual members of the covenant people. The blessings listed by Paul in Romans 9:4–5 do not include salvation content.
Jack W. Cotrell (2006-11-01). Perspectives on Election (pp. 125-126). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
I completely agree with Cotrell’s criticism of the typical Calvinist misreading of Romans 9 and with what he has said about the Abrahamic Covenant. Of course, he is wrong in the rest of his exegesis, and he misses Paul’s allegorical application as Paul very clearly also speaks of individual salvation. Piper is helpful in addressing this:
The clarifying question that must now be posed is this: If, as we have seen (p53), God’s purpose is to perform his act of election freely without being determined by any human distinctives, what act of election is intended in Rom9:11—13—an election which determines the eternal destiny of individuals, or an election which merely assigns to individuals and nations the roles they are to play in history? The question is contextually appropriate and theologically explosive.18 On one side, those who find in Rom 9:6-13 individual and eternal predestination are accused of importing a “modern problem” (of determinism and indeterminism) into the text, and of failing to grasp the corporateness of the election discussed. 19 On the other side, one sees in the text a clear statement of “double predestination” of individuals to salvation or condemnation and claims that “the history of exegesis of Rom 9 could be described as the history of attempts to escape this clear observation” (Maier, Mensch und freier Wille, 356)…
J. Munck (Christ and Israel, 42) argues that “Rom 9:6-13 is therefore speaking neither of individuals and their selection for salvation, nor of the spiritual Israel, the Christian church. It speaks rather of the patriarchs, who without exception became founders of peoples.”
The list of modern scholars on the other side is just as impressive… On the larger context (including Rom 9:16) Henry Alford (II, 408f) writes, “I must protest against all endeavors to make it appear that no inference lies from this passage as to the salvation of individuals. It is most true that the immediate subject is the national rejection of Jews: but we must consent to hold our reason in abeyance if we do not recognize the inference that the sovereign power and free election here proved to belong to God extend to every exercise of his mercy – whether temporal or spiritual… whether national or individual.”…
The basic argument against seeing individual, eternal predestination in Rom 9:6-13 is that the two Old Testament references on which Paul builds his case do not in their Old Testament contexts refer to individuals or to eternal destiny, but rather to nations and historical tasks. The argument carries a good deal of force, especially when treated (as it usually is) without reference to the logical development of Paul’s argument in Rom 9:1-13…
By this election of Isaac instead of Ishmael God shows that physical descent from Abraham does not guarantee that one will be a beneficiary of the covenant made with Abraham and his seed… But, the interpretation continues, the covenant blessings for which Isaac is freely chosen (before his birth) and from which Ishmael is excluded (in spite of descendancy from Abraham) do not include individual eternal salvation. One cannot legitimately infer from Rom 9:7-9 that Ishmael and his descendants are eternally lost nor that Isaac and his descendants are eternally saved. What God freely and sovereignly determined is the particular descendant (Isaac) whose line will inherit the blessings of the covenant: multiplying exceedingly, fathering many nations, inhabiting the promised land and having God as their God (Gen 17:2-8). This benefit, not eternal salvation, is what is not based on physical descent from Abraham, but on God’s unconditional election…
A plausible case can be made for the position that “Paul is no longer concerned with two peoples and their fate but rather in a permanent way with the election and rejection of two persons [Jacob and Esau] who have been raised to the level of types” (Kaesemann, Romans, 264). I think this is probably true… But… the decisive flaw in the collectivist/historical position is not its failure to agree with Kaesemann’s contention. It’s decisive flaw is its failure to ask how the flow of Paul’s argument from 9:1-5 on through the chapter affects the application of the principle Paul has established in Rom 9:6b-13. The principle established is that God’s promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God’s sovereign, free predestination (Rom 9:11,12)… We may grant, for the sake of argument, that in the demonstration of this principle of God’s freedom in election Paul uses Old Testament texts that do not relate explicitly to eternal salvation… [But] the solution which Rom 9:6-13 develops in response to this problem [9:1-5], must address the issue of individual, eternal salvation…
[W]hether Paul sees the election of Isaac (Rom 9:7b) as the election of an individual to salvation or as the election of his posterity for a historical task, the principle of unconditional election is immediately applied by Paul to the present concern, namely, who in reality does constitute true, spiritual “Israel” (9:6b), whose salvation is guaranteed by God’s word?”
– John Piper, The Justification of God, p. 56-73
An Internal/External Old Covenant?
Many Calvinists have simply missed this clear and historic explanation of Romans 9 because they have been too eager to use it as a proof-text for infant baptism (and Calvinist Baptists like Piper and Schreiner mentioned above have unwittingly followed this line). Paedobaptist covenant theology views all of the post-fall covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) as various expressions (“administrations”) of the same covenant. They are all the covenant of grace and they are all made with more than just the elect. However, WLC 31 says “With whom was the covenant of grace made? Answer: The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” How do the non-elect fit into that definition? Louis Berkhof notes
What induced these theologians to speak of the covenant as made with the elect in spite of all the practical difficulties involved?… Reformed theologians were deeply conscious of the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. They felt that in the former the reward of the covenant was dependent on the uncertain obedience of man and as a result failed to materialize, while in the covenant of grace the full realization of the promises is absolutely sure in virtue of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. Its realization is sure through the operation of the grace of God, but, of course, sure only for those who are partakers of that grace. They felt constrained to stress this aspect of the covenant especially over against the Arminians and Neonomians, who virtually changed it into a new covenant of works, and made salvation once more dependent on the work of man, that is, on faith and evangelical obedience. For this reason they stressed the close connection between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, and even hesitated to speak of faith as the condition of the covenant of grace…
The idea that the covenant is fully realized only in the elect is a perfectly Scriptural idea, as appears, for instance, from Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-12… But now the question arises, whether in the estimation of these Reformed theologians all the non-elect are outside of the covenant of grace in every sense of the word. Brakel virtually takes this position, but he is not in line with the majority. They realized very well that a covenant of grace, which in no sense of the word included others than the elect, would be purely individual, while the covenant of grace is represented in Scripture as an organic idea. They were fully aware of the fact that, according to God’s special revelation in both the Old and the New Testament, the covenant as a historical phenomenon is perpetuated in successive generations and includes many in whom the covenant life is never realized. And whenever they desired to include this aspect of the covenant in their definition, they would say that it was established with believers and their seed.
He then discusses various attempts by reformed theologians to explain these different senses of covenant membership under IV. The Dual Aspect of the Covenant. He lists An External and Internal Covenant, The Essence and Administration of the Covenant, A Conditional and an Absolute Covenant, The Covenant as Purely Legal Relationship and as Communion of Life. He defends the last view (and argues against the others):
E. Membership in the Covenant as a Legal Relationship…
2. Children of believers in the covenant. With respect to the children of believers, who enter the covenant by birth, the situation is, of course, somewhat different. Experience teaches that, though by birth they enter the covenant as a legal relationship, this does not necessarily mean that they are also at once in the covenant as a communion of life. It does not even mean that the covenant relation will ever come to its full realization in their lives. Yet even in their case there must be a reasonable assurance that the covenant is not or will not remain a mere legal relationship, with external duties and privileges, pointing to that which ought to be, but is also or will in time become a living reality. This assurance is based on the promise of God, which is absolutely reliable, that He will work in the hearts of the covenant youth with His saving grace and transform them into living members of the covenant…
The promises of God are given to the seed of believers collectively, and not individually. God’s promise to continue His covenant and to bring it to full realization in the children of believers, does not mean that He will endow every last one of them with saving faith. And if some of them continue in unbelief, we shall have to bear in mind what Paul says in Rom. 9:6-8. They are not all Israel who are of Israel; the children of believers are not all children of promise. Hence it is necessary to remind even children of the covenant constantly of the necessity of regeneration and conversion. The mere fact that one is in the covenant does not carry with it the assurance of salvation.
Excerpt From: Louis Berkhof. “Systematic Theology.” iBooks.
Note the Westminster Larger Catechism:
WLC Question 166: Unto whom is Baptism to be administered? Answer: Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him, but infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized.
In other words, there is more than one sense in which a person can be in the covenant of grace. Paedobaptists without exception go to Romans 9:6 to defend this “dual aspect” of the Covenant of Grace. It says “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” which they interpret to mean “not all who are in the Covenant of Grace belong to the Covenant of Grace,” thus establishing two levels of covenant membership. But is that what the text is teaching?
The fundamental error of paedobaptist covenant theology is that they combine all of the post-fall covenants together into one covenant, against the testimony of Scripture which clearly distinguishes them as separate covenants. If we approach Romans 9:6 with this faulty presupposition, we will misread the text. As we saw above, Romans 9:6 is a parallel to Galatians 4:21-31 where Paul distinguishes between the Old and the New as separate covenants. In addition to simply not understanding Paul’s argument, and Paul’s view of the typology of Israel throughout his letters (as explained above), this has two more problems.
First, it leads them to identify the promise of Isaac’s birth itself as somehow identical to the promise of salvation. After all, Paul says “For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.'” Thus many try to argue this meant that salvation was to be confined to the line of Isaac, rather than the line of Ishmael, which is not supported by anything in Scripture. This line of reasoning is found as well when it is implied that salvation was limited to the nation of Israel during the Old Testament. Not only is this the necessary implication of their misreading of Romans 9; it is also a necessary implication of their identification of the Old Covenant as the Covenant of Grace. Nehemiah Coxe explains:
[T]his [Abrahamic] covenant did not confine the solemn worship of God (by sacrifices or otherwise) to Abraham’s family. Nor were other holy men living then under any obligation to incorporate themselves into it by circumcision or at all to take on them that sign or seal of this covenant of peculiarity that God now made with Abraham. Yet without a doubt they should have done this if in its first institution it had been given simply and directly as a seal of the covenant of grace. For then by reason of their interest in that covenant, both in point of duty and privilege, it belonged as much to them as to the seed and family of Abraham.
From the sacred history it is evident that the command by virtue of which circumcision was administered, extended no further than to Abraham and his family. Therefore we have no ground to conclude that Lot (though closely allied to Abraham) was circumcised. There is nothing in the command of God or in the first institution of circumcision that obligated him to it or interested him in it. Yet there is no doubt to be made of his interest in the covenant of grace.
Nor was Lot the only righteous man living in the world beside those of Abraham’s family for the patriarchs Heber, Salah, and Shem were now living. They had their distinct families and interests so there is no question that the pure worship of God was maintained in them and they promoted the interest of true religion to the utmost of their power while they lived.
Melchizedek was alive about this time. Whether he was Shem named earlier or another does not concern us. But this is certain: that it was he who was the priest of the most high God and King of Salem. In both respects he was the most eminent type of Jesus Christ that ever was in the world; a person greater than Abraham, for Abraham paid tithes to him and was blessed by him. Now considering that he was both king and priest, there is no doubt that there was a society of men that were ruled
by hint and for whom he ministered. For a priest is ordained for men in things pertaining to God. This society was at this time as much a church of God as Abraham’s family was and as truly interested in the covenant of grace as any in it. Yet they were not involved as parties in this covenant of circumcision nor to be signed by it. And so it is manifest that circumcision was not at first applied as a seal of the covenant of grace, nor did an interest in it presently render a man the proper subject of it.
Again, to suppose that all good men then living should have been circumcised as Abraham was, and their offspring bound to keep this covenant in their generations as his were, would necessarily frustrate one great (if not the greatest) end of circumcision and its covenant. This was the separating of one family of people from all others in the world for the bringing out of the Messiah, that promised seed, from them and among them for the establishing of all the promises made to the fathers. Moreover, the promise of this covenant regarding the inheritance of the land of Canaan could never have been made good to them all. And yet certainly the sealing of that promise was on thing intended in circumcision.
From the whole it appears that, on the one hand, there was a positive command which made it necessary to circumcise many that never had interest in the covenant of grace. So, on the other hand, from the first date of circumcision there were many truly interested in the covenant of grace who were under no obligation to be circumcised. This is how far from truth it is that a new covenant interest and right to circumcision may be inferred the one from the other.
Covenant Theology From Adam to Christ, p. 116-118
Second, and following the above, there is no way to explain why Ishmael, someone whom God declared was not a child of promise (and therefore, according to their reading of Romans 9:6-8, declared reprobate) and with whom the Abrahamic Covenant would not be established, would receive circumcision, which paedobaptists claim is a seal of the righteousness of faith.
Rather than being a proof text for Westminster federalism, the internal/external covenant construct is imported into Romans 9:6 because of a prior covenantal commitment. Paul is making distinctions between Israel after the flesh, to whom belong the [old] covenants (they are/were actually in covenant with God), and true, spiritual Israel, to whom belong the ultimate fulfillment of those previous covenants: the new covenant/covenant of grace. He demonstrates that even Israel after the flesh was granted blessings on the basis of God’s sovereign election and he applies this historical reality allegorically to come to the conclusion that they are not all [spiritual] Israel [with whom the New Covenant is made] who are from [carnal] Israel [with whom the Old Covenant was made].
Here is a quote from Isaac Backus:
But what will, I apprehend, set this matter in the clearest light, is to consider it in the line of type and antitype.—It is abundantly shewn in Scripture, that the Jewish church, and the forms and ordinances thereof, did shadow forth, and typify heavenly things, Heb. 8:2–6 and 9:9, 23, 24, &c. The seed of Abraham, Isaac and Israel’s being selected out of other nations, and being redeem’d with almighty power, and bro’t near to God, to be his peculiar people, and to partake of those ordinances and privileges which no other nation then enjoyed, did remarkably shadow forth God’s spiritual Israel, whom he hath chosen and by almighty grace redeemed; Out of every kindred, tongue, people and nation. Rev. 5:9. And as the Lord said to Israel at Sinai; Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, (Exod. 19:6) so these saints say, Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests, ver. 10. And in the fore-mentioned 9th of Romans, Paul evidently shews, that as Israel literally, was chosen out of other people: so that Israel spiritually are chosen out, from among both Jews and Gentiles. The same apostle calls the old-testament dispensation the Letter; and the new-testament, the Spirit, 2 Cor. 3:6. That church had a literal house and temple where God’s name was fixed, and his worship confined. Deut. 12:13. 1 King. 8:29…
Thus by jumbling type and antitype together, persons run themselves into a sad dilemma: whereas if we take them distinct, the case is easy…
Now if we take these things distinct, there is no difficulty; but to jumble them together, leads into endless confusion.
In “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, Samuel Renihan provides the following quote
We conceive, that this Scripture [Gal. 3:29; Rom. 9:6-9] doth expound, Gen. 17. God made an everlasting covenant of Grace with ABRAHAM and his seed. Now the Scriptures declare, that ABRAHAM had two kindes of seed; one born after the flesh, the other born after the Spirit, Gal. 4. 29. The question is, who are counted for Abrahams seed according to the covenant of grace?
-Benjamin Coxe, William Kiffin, and Hanserd Knollys
A Declaration Concerning the Publike Dispute Which Should have been in the Publike Meeting-House of Alderman-Bury, the 3d of this instant Moneth of December; Concerning Infants-Baptisme. Together, with some of the Arguments which should have been propounded and urged by some of those that are falsly called Anabaptists, which should then have disputed (London: n.p., 1645), 16.
“In Isaac will your seed be called.” It was Isaac’s seed and not Ishmael’s that the Lord would set apart for himself, give the land of Canaan to, and establish his solemn worship among them to be their God…
But once more the Lord restrains it by the rejection of Esau and the choosing of Jacob before the children had done either good or evil. This was so the purpose of God according to election might stand and he might set before us an awe-inspiring type of his sovereignty in the later dispensation of the grace of the gospel…
[T]he covenant of peculiarity made with Israel and the dispensation that God brought them under pursuant to its ends, was typical of the gospel covenant and the state of things in it. In Isaac we have a type of the children of God by faith. As he (in his seed) was the heir of Canaan, so they are heirs of heaven. As he was persecuted by Ishmael, so must they expect trouble in the world and look to be maligned by all carnal and Pharisaic spirits who seek to establish their own righteousness and refuse to submit to the righteousness of God. In a word, the people, their worship, and their inheritance were all typical. And yet, as Abraham’s spiritual seed may behold the shadow of their own state and privilege in the spiritual relation and typical economy of the Jewish church, so they again might and ought to consider themselves in their outward state to be but typical. While they were figures of the children of promise, both themselves, their state, and their end were figured in the son of the bond-woman and his rejection.
-Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ (102-3, 132)
[T]his article closely examines Gal 3 and 4:21–31 as well as Rom 4 and 9:7–13 in order to demonstrate that there is an underlying hermeneutical consistency to Paul’s typological use of the patriarchs and that this consistency is supportive of the view that “Israel” in Rom 9:6b refers to spiritual Israel—that is, the church… These texts are all part of a larger pattern of predominantly typological exegesis; they have all been cut, so to speak, from the same hermeneutical cloth and cannot be understood in isolation from one another…
[H]is argument in Rom 9:7–8 closely resembles and in part even seems to assume what had been explicitly proved in Gal 4:21– 31, namely, the existence of a typological antithesis between Isaac as a child of Abraham according to promise and Ishmael as a child according to the flesh with all that kata; sarkav often entails. The sudden introduction of multiple children of promise along with multiple children of flesh in Rom 9:8 only follows epexegetically (touÅt∆ eßstin) from the bare mention of Isaac in Rom 9:7 if the respective typological identities of both of Abraham’s sons can be taken for granted—identities that are not fully articulated here but in Galatians. In fact, only here and in Gal 4:23, 28–29 do we find the antithesis between “children of flesh” and “children of promise.” This makes the Galatians passage with its considerably greater elaboration indispensable for a proper understanding of Rom 9:8…
As a child of promise whose birth was wholly dependent on the gracious activity of God, Isaac stands as a type of the “children of promise,” namely, Jewish and Gentile believers…
Over against “the Israel of the old covenant,” Paul thus sets “the Israel of the new covenant, consisting of believing Jew and Gentile.”…
Believing Jews and Gentiles together are the people of God. They alone are the “seed” of Abraham and the “children of promise,” because they, and they alone, are the eschatological antitypes of Isaac and Jacob…
Not only has he consistently viewed descent from Abraham spiritually, he has consistently treated Abraham’s literal progeny typologically. The patriarchs of the first two generations after Abraham stand in Scripture as types of still greater eschatological realities. Isaac and Jacob are types of the “children of promise”… At the same time that these typologies were seen to be crucial to Paul’s view of the people of God in both Galatians and Romans, they were also seen to be part of a larger pattern of interpretation, namely, the systematic appropriation to the church of the Scriptures, blessings, and promises of Israel.
Finally, hear Augustine once more:
What then is the import of the “All, from the least unto the greatest of them,” but all that belong spiritually to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah,—that is, to the children of Isaac, to the seed of Abraham? For such is the promise, wherein it was said to him, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called; for they which are the children of the flesh are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac, (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth,) it was said unto her, “The elder shall serve the younger.” (Rom 9:7-12) This is the house of Israel, or rather the house of Judah, on account of Christ, who came of the tribe of Judah. This is the house of the children of promise,—not by reason of their own merits, but of the kindness of God. For God promises what He Himself performs: He does not Himself promise, and another perform; which would no longer be promising, but prophesying. Hence it is “not of works, but of Him that calleth,” (Rom 9:11) lest the result should be their own, not God’s; lest the reward should be ascribed not to His grace, but to their due; and so grace should be no longer grace which was so earnestly defended and maintained by him who, though the least of the apostles, laboured more abundantly than all the rest,—yet not himself, but the grace of God that was with him. (1 Cor 15:9-10)
“They shall all know me,” (Jer 31:34) He says,—“All,” the house of Israel and house of Judah. “All,” however, “are not Israel which are of Israel,” (Rom 9:6) but they only to whom it is said in “the psalm concerning the morning aid” (Ps 22) (that is, concerning the new refreshing light, meaning that of the new testament [covenant]), “All ye the seed of Jacob, glorify Him; and fear Him, all ye the seed of Israel.” (Ps 22:23) All the seed, without exception, even the entire seed of the promise and of the called, but only of those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28) “For whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified.” (Rom 8:30) “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed: not to that only which is of the law,”—that is, which comes from the Old Testament into the New,—“but to that also which is of faith,” which was indeed prior to the law, even “the faith of Abraham,”—meaning those who imitate the faith of Abraham,—“who is the father of us all; as it is written, I have made thee the father of many nations.” (Rom 4:16-17) Now all these predestinated, called, justified, glorified ones, shall know God by the grace of the new testament [covenant], from the least to the greatest of them.
As then the law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament [covenant], so the law of faith, written on the heart, and its reward, the beatific vision which the house of the spiritual Israel, when delivered from the present world, shall perceive, belong to the new testament [covenant].”
A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter.
Chapter 40.—How that is to Be the Reward of All; The Apostle Earnestly Defends Grace.
Chapter 41.—The Law Written in the Heart, and the Reward of the Eternal Contemplation of God, Belong to the New Covenant; Who Among the Saints are the Least and the Greatest.
Augustine explains Rom 9:6 with reference to Jeremiah 31:34. All Israel shall know the Lord, but they are not all [spiritual] Israel [with whom the New Covenant is made] who are from [carnal] Israel [with whom the Old Covenant was made]. He correctly identifies the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 9 as election & reprobation, but he also correctly identifies election to salvation as corresponding to membership in the New Covenant (not to “inner” membership in the Abrahamic Covenant/Covenant of Grace).
In a previous post God’s Covenant Unfaithfulness? I demonstrated the error in the illogical claim that in the Covenant of Grace God promises the salvation of our children, concluding that “Physical heritage is irrelevant to God’s promise to save the elect.”
Advocates of the Federal Vision heresy have tried to take this false premise to its logical conclusion.
Steve Schlissel, pastor of the independent Messiah’s Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, wrote on a whiteboard during a colloquium on Federal Vision theology in August 2003 hosted by Knox Theological Seminary, “The children of believers are saved.”
(Evangelizing Our Children, 3)
Federal Visionist John Barach says
[T]here is an objective covenant made with believers and their children. Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the Triune God.
(Evangelizing Our Children, 2)
The obvious problem is that our experience and (more importantly) Scripture teaches us that not all of the children of believers are, in fact, saved. Federal Visionist Doug Wilson notes
In faith, we want to say that children of believers are saved. But we are not making a categorical statement of the “All P are Q” kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too. Now these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment. How are we to account for this?
(Evangelizing Our Children, 3)
E. Calvin Beisner (OPC, see 4 page bio) does an excellent job of refuting this error in an essay titled Evangelizing Our Children: A Reformed and Covenantal Practice. What sets Beisner apart in all of his writings is his understanding of and adherence to logic (see his Summary of Major Concepts, Principles, and Functions of Logic). In this paper, he demonstrates that Wilson’s attempted solution (“levels of discourse”) is illogical and therefore false. He pinpoints the Federal Vision’s error as their premise that God has promised the salvation of our children.
The Federal Visionists have not provided any promises of God of type (1), “All children of believers–or all baptized persons–are people who are saved.” Consequently it is of no use for Wilson to say, “we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too,”… Neither is it of use for Wilson to say, “these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment.” That in itself assumes what the Federal Visionists must prove–that God has promised the salvation of all children of believers (or all baptized persons).
Beisner demonstrates that the logically inescapable conclusion is that
He has not promised the salvation of any children of believers or baptized persons simply because they are children of believers or baptized persons… [Thus] it is possible for any or even all children of believers, or baptized persons, to be damned. [emphasis original]
This is exactly what we concluded previously. “Physical heritage is irrelevant to God’s promise to save the elect.”
Beisner recognizes this conclusion has serious consequences for various passages that paedobaptists frequently use as proof texts.
What then are we to make of those precious passages with which we began? What of Peter’s statement, “The promise is for you and your children”? What of Paul’s that the child of even just one believing parent is “holy”? What of his promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”? What of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you”? Perhaps we need to look at them a little more carefully.
Commenting on Acts 2:39, Calvin says
Whereas he adjoineth their children unto them, it dependeth upon the words of the promise: I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee, (Genesis 17:7,) where God doth reckon the children with the fathers in the grace of adoption. This place, therefore, doth abundantly refute the manifest error of the Anabaptists, which will not have infants, which are the children of the faithful, to be baptized, as if they were not members of the Church.
In his excellent two-part essay on Acts 2:39 in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, Jamin Hubner notes
the phrase ‘everyone who the Lord our God calls to Himself’ is entirely absent from [Calvin’s] commentary. This is particularly troublesome since he normally does not exclude entire phrases like this… This is what pushes readers away from the fact that Peter is talking of God’s elect (“everyone the Lord God calls to Himself”) – whether they are Jews or Gentiles, children or adults.
Francis Turretin (1623-1687) says in the 15th Topic of his classic work The Institutes of Elenctic Theology:
XIV. The reasons [for seminal faith in infants] are: (1) the promise of the covenant pertains no less to infants than to adults, since God promises that he will be ‘the God of Abraham and of his seed’ (Gen. 17:7) and the promise is said to have been made ‘with the fathers and their children’ (Acts 2:39). Therefore also the blessings of the covenant (such as “remission of sins” and “sanctification”) ought to pertain to them (according to Jer. 31 and 32) and are communicated to them by God according to their state.
The Westminster Confession of Faith references Acts 2:39 in defense of infant baptism in 25.2 and 28.4. Hubner notes “Combined with what appears to be loyalty to Calvin, there is, then, a repetitious pattern of errors in interpreting Acts 2:39 throughout much of history.” Thankfully, because of his commitment to logic, Beisner is willing to abandon that loyalty.
Consider first Peter’s comment in Acts 2:39. Thus far we have quoted only part of it. The whole of it is, “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Are those who insist that here is a promise of the salvation of the children of believers as quick to say that here is a promise of salvation “for all who are far off”? Those are not simply the children of believers; those include all men everywhere in the world. But does God promise salvation to all men everywhere in the world. Certainly not. Neither, then, does He promise salvation to all the children of believers. What does He promise, then, to all the children of believers and to all people everywhere? Look at verse 38–and I’m going to use my own very literal translation here to make clear the grammatical cause-and-effect relationship that is clear in the Greek but ordinarily gets obscured in English translations: “Y’all repent for the remission of y’all’s sins, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and y’all will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”… The promise is conditional: If you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. That promise does indeed apply to each and every child of each and every believer; and it also applies to each and every other person who ever lived or ever will live.
That is precisely what baptists have been saying for quite a long time. The logically necessary conclusion, as Hubner notes, is that
“Those who received his word and their children were baptized” is not in the text, nor would it fit any concept asserted in Acts 2. Baptism in Acts 2, in Acts in general, and in all the New Testament is consistently associated with repentance and faith… So no matter how one puts it, Peter is not asserting in Acts 2 that one should be baptized apart from repentance. He is asserting quite the opposite! This is a fact of the text (and all of Scripture) that stands in contradiction to infant baptism and simply will not go away: repentance from sin is a precondition to baptism…
Alas, the historical interpretation of Acts 2:39 has been anything but sound in the Reformed faith. Therefore, let us turn the tide by letting the Word of God speak on its own terms, and be willing to test our traditions. Only then are we truly practicing sola Scriptura. Amen and semper reformanda.
God uses false teaching to drive us to His Word. Look at any great creed or confession and you will see that it was formed in the midst of rigorous dispute. Presbyterian critics of the Federal Vision are frequently accused of making baptist arguments. Perhaps the Lord will use the Federal Vision heresy to drive Presbyterians to greater consistency, as it has done to Beisner.
If Acts 2:39 is a conditional promise to everyone in the world and is not unique to the children of believers, how does Beisner interpret Genesis 17:7?
And finally consider God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” Does this imply that every physical descendant of Abraham–or even every one of his own direct, first-generation offspring–would be saved, that none of them would go to hell, all would go to heaven? Certainly not. As Paul explained in Romans 9:6-8… Likewise he wrote in Galatians 4:22-31… Notice that: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.”…
Haven’t we heard some similar phrases somewhere else? Yes! In John 1:10-13, John tells us that the incarnate Word, Jesus, “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world”–those who had no special relationship to Abraham–did not know Him. He came to His own”–that is, to the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh, “and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them”–whether those of the world, or those of Abraham according to the flesh–“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Beisner is clear that he believes God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 was made only to his spiritual offspring, both Jew and Gentile. God’s promise “to be God to you and to your descendants after you” does not refer to Abraham’s physical offspring.
If that is the case, then the circumcision of Abraham’s physical offspring is entirely unrelated to this promise. But Scripture clearly says circumcision was directly tied to this covenant promise.
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:9-11 ESV)
How are we to resolve this dilemma in a logically consistent way? John Owen untied this Gordian Knot by recognizing the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant and his seed.
Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —
First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.
Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”
4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God…
Long before Owen, Augustine made the same observation.
Now it is to be observed that two things are promised to Abraham, the one, that his seed should possess the land of Canaan, which is intimated when it is said, “Go into a land that I will show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation;” but the other far more excellent, not about the carnal but the spiritual seed, through which he is the father, not of the one Israelite nation, but of all nations who follow the footprints of his faith, which was first promised in these words, “And in thee shall all tribes of the earth be blessed.”…
Abraham, then, having departed out of Haran in the seventy-fifth year of his own age, and in the hundred and forty-fifth of his father’s, went with Lot, his brother’s son, and Sarah his wife, into the land of Canaan, and came even to Sichem, where again he received the divine oracle, of which it is thus written: “And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Gen 12:7) Nothing is promised here about that seed in which he is made the father of all nations, but only about that by which he is the father of the one Israelite nation; for by this seed that land was possessed…
[T]he people were settled in the land of promise, so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.
And as Jonathan Edwards observed, the covenant promise “to be God to you and your offspring after you” had a dichotomous meaning: typological and anti-typological.
That such appellations as God’s people, God’s Israel, and some other like phrases, are used and applied in Scripture with considerable diversity of intention…
with regard to the people of Israel, it is very manifest, that something diverse is oftentimes intended by that nation being God’s people, from their being visible saints, visibly holy, or having those qualifications which are requisite in order to a due admission to the ecclesiastical privileges of such. That nation, that family of Israel according to the flesh, and with regard to that external and carnal qualification, were in some sense adopted by God to be his peculiar people, and his covenant people…
It is to be noted, that the privileges here mentioned are spoken of as belonging to the Jews, not now as visible saints, not as professors of the true religion, not as members of the visible church of Christ; but only as people of such a nation, such a blood, such an external and carnal relation to the patriarchs their ancestors, Israelites according to the flesh…
To that nation he fixed his blessing by his covenant with the patriarchs. Indeed the main thing, the substance and marrow of that covenant which God made with Abraham and the other patriarchs, was the covenant of grace, which is continued in these days of the gospel, and extends to all his spiritual seed, of the Gentiles as well as Jews: but yet that covenant with the patriarchs contained other things that were appendages to that everlasting covenant of grace; promises of lesser matters, subservient to the grand promise of the future seed, and typical of things appertaining to him… And in this sense it was that the very family of Jacob were God’s people by covenant, and his chosen people; even when they were no visible saints, when they lived in idolatry, and made no profession of the true religion.
On the whole, it is evident that the very nation of Israel, not as visible saints, but as the progeny of Jacob according to the flesh, were in some respect a chosen people, a people of God, a covenant people, an holy nation; even as Jerusalem was a chosen city, the city of God, a holy city, and a city that God had engaged by covenant to dwell in…
That nation was a typical nation. There was then literally a land, which was a type of heaven, the true dwelling-place of God; and an external city, which was a type of the spiritual city of God; an external temple of God, which was a type of his spiritual temple. So there was an external people and family of God, by carnal generation, which was a type of his spiritual progeny…
they are not God’s Covenant people, in the sense that visible Christians are.
May we all follow Beisner’s example and strive to be logical consistent with God’s Word. And may Beisner continue to follow the logic and recognize that Genesis 17:7 is no basis for infant baptism.
(To see all of this worked out in a systematic manner, please see http://www.1689federalism.com)
Under the appellation of children the difference they [Anabaptists] observe is this, that the children of Abraham, under the old dispensation, were those who derived their origin from his seed, but that the appellation is now given to those who imitate his faith, and therefore that carnal infancy, which was ingrafted into the fellowship of the covenant by circumcision, typified the spiritual children of the new covenant, who are regenerated by the word of God to immortal life. In these words we indeed discover a small spark of truth…
We certainly admit that the carnal seed of Abraham for a time held the place of the spiritual seed, which is ingrafted into him by faith (Gal. 4:28; Rom. 4:12).
Commenting on this, Peter Lillback notes “It is true that the offspring of Abraham’s flesh foreshadowed the future offspring of Abraham by faith.”
Our paedobaptist brothers simply do not recognize the implications of these admissions (for more like this, see here). If Abraham’s carnal seed were a type and shadow of his spiritual seed, which “held the place of the spiritual seed” for a time, then to determine the proper recipients of baptism by appeal to Abraham’s carnal seed is necessarily to return to types and shadows that have passed away at the coming of Christ.
- P1 Abraham’s carnal seed was a type/shadow of Abraham’s spiritual seed.
- P2 Abraham’s carnal seed received the sign of circumcision.
- C1 The sign of circumcision was given to the type/shadow of Abraham’s spiritual seed.
- P3 The sign of circumcision was given to the type/shadow of Abraham’s spiritual seed.
- P4 Types and shadows have passed away and become obsolete at the coming of Christ.
- C2 The sign of circumcision was given to a group that has passed away and become obsolete.
- P5 The sign of circumcision was given to a group that has passed away and become obsolete.
- P6 Baptism serves the same covenant function as circumcision, therefore its proper recipients are determined by the recipients of circumcision.
- C3 The proper recipients of baptism are determined by looking to what has passed away and become obsolete
The final conclusion is logically valid, but it is false because P6 is false.
Roger Williams led the 17th century charge for religious liberty (“liberty of conscience”). He wrote to parliament and the Westminster Assembly urging for tolerance and he wrote two books interacting with New England Congregationalist John Cotton’s arguments for intolerance.
One of the arguments Williams appealed to was that Israel was a type of the Church. Therefore we cannot simply take penal sanctions from the Old Covenant and apply them to modern nations today. Of course the Presbyterians disagreed and argued that Israel was itself the church so the penal sanctions do apply today in the same way (because there was a separation between church and state in Israel, so the church is structured after Israel’s ecclesiastical hierarchy and the modern state after Israel’s civil laws).
Williams wrote The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution and the follow-up The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy in the form of a dialogue between Peace and Truth. I modernized the spelling.
The Bloudy Tenent (1644)
I have fully and at large declared the vast differences between the holy nation of typical Israel and all other lands and countries, how unmatchable then and now, and never to be parallel’d, but by the true Israel and particular churches of Christ, residing in all parts (and under the several civil governments) of the world*: In which churches, the Israel of God, the Kingdom of Christ Jesus, such only are to be chosen spiritual officers and governors, to manage his kingly power and authority in the church, as are (according to the Scriptures quoted, not Pope, Bishops, or civil powers, but) from amongst themselves, brethren, fearing God, hating covetousness or filthy lucre, according to those golden rules given by the Lord Jesus, 1 Tim 3 & Tit 1.
The want of discerning this true parallel, between Israel in the type then, and Israel the antitype now, is that rock whereon (through the Lords righteous jealousy, punishing the world, and chastising his people) thousands dash, and make woeful shipwreck. The second branch, viz. that all freemen elected be only church members, I have before shown to be built on that sandy and dangerous ground of Israel’s pattern: O that it may please the Father of lights to discover this to all that fear his name! then would they not sin to save a kingdom, nor run into the lamentable breach of civil peace and order in the world, nor be guilty of forcing thousands to hypocrisy, in a state worship, nor of prophaning the holy name of God and Christ, by putting their names and ordinances upon unclean and unholy persons: nor of shedding the blood of such heretics, &c. whom Christ would have enjoy longer patience and permission until the harvest: nor of the blood of the Lord Jesus himself, in his faithful witnesses of truth: nor lastly, of the blood of so many hundred thousands slaughtered men, women, and children, by such uncivil and unchristian wars and combustions about the Christian faith and religion.
…the state of the people [of Israel] shall appear unmatchable, but only by the true church and Israel of God.
First, the people of Israel were all the seed or offspring of one man Abraham, Ps. 105:6… Only the spiritual Israel and seed of God the newborn are but one: Christ is the seed, Gal 3 and they only that are Christs are only Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.
This spiritual seed is the only antitype of the former figurative and typical: a seed which all Christians ought to propagate, yeah even the unmarried men and women (who are not capable of natural offspring) for thus is this called the seed of Christ (who lived and died unmarried) Is 59:21.
… I therefore thirdly add, that only such as are Abraham’s seed, circumcised in heart, newborn, Israel (or wrestlers with God) are the antitype of the former Israel, these are only the holy nation (1 Pet 2) wonderfully redeemed from the Egypt of this world (Titus 2:14) brought through the Red Sea of baptism (1 Cor 10) through the wilderness of afflictions and the peoples (Deut 8; Ezek 20) into the kingdom of heaven begun below, even that Christian land of promise, where flow the everflowing streams and rivers of spiritual milk and honey.
…This people of Israel in the national state were a type of all the children of God in all ages under the profession of the gospel, who are therefore called the children of Abraham, and the Israel of God, Gal 3 & 6. A kingly priesthood and holy nation (1 Pet 2:9) in a clear and manifest antitype to the former Israel, Exod 19:6.
Hence Christians are now figuratively in this respect called Jews, Rev. 3 where lies a clear distinction of the true and false Christian under the consideration of true and false Jew: Behold I will make them of the Synagogue of Satan that say they are Jews and are not, but do lie, Rev. 3. But such a typical respect we find not now upon any people, nation, or country of the whole world: But out of all nations, tongues and languages is God pleased to call some and redeemed them to himself (Rev 5:9). And hath made no difference between the Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Scithians, Gal 3, who by regeneration or second birth become the Israel of God, Gal 6. the temple of God, 1 Cor 3. and the true Jerusalem, Heb 12.
Peace. It seems (dear Truth) a mighty gulf between that people and nation, and the nations of the world then extant and ever since.
Truth. As sure as the blessed substance to all those shadows, Christ Jesus is come, so unmatchable and never to be paralleled by any national state was that Israel in the figure or shadow.
And yet the Israel of God now, the regenerate or newborn, the circumcised in heart by repentance and mortification, who willingly submit unto the Lord Jesus as their only king and head, may fitly parallel and answer that Israel in the type, without such danger of hypocrisy, of such horrible prophanations, and of firing the civil state in such bloody combustions, as all ages have brought forth upon this compelling a whole nation or kingdom to be the antitype of Israel.
This graphic has floated around social media:
Though perhaps written in response to dispensationalism, it is often posted in response to baptists in order to promote Westminster Federalism, which believes that Israel and the Church are one. However, a slightly closer inspection reveals that Israel and the Church, though very related, are not one. Rather, Israel according to the flesh is a type of Israel according to the Spirit. Read more…
Yesterday it was announced that J. I. Packer’s Rare Puritan Library Now Digitized to Be Read Online for Free. One of the books is Mather, Samuel. The figures or types of the Old Testament: by which Christ and the heavenly things of the Gospel were preached and shadowed to . . . 1705. 2nd. ed. Read online / Catalogue record
Samuel Mather was the eldest son of Richard Mather. He was born at Much Woolton, near Liverpool, Lancashire, on 13 May 1626. His father took him in 1635 to New England, where he was educated at Harvard College and graduated M.A. in 1643, becoming a fellow of the College. He was the first fellow of Harvard who had graduated there.
Having already become a preacher, Mather returned to England, and in 1650 was made one of the chaplains of Magdalen College, Oxford, under the presidency of Thomas Goodwin, the Independent… (Wikipedia)
Samuel’s youngest brother was Increase Mather, a prominent figure in congregational New England and son-in-law of John Cotton, the preeminant New England congregationalist (see my post The Half-way Covenant). Their other brother Nathaniel was also a pastor in England. All three were strongly Independent/Congregational. Even Increase was heavily involved in Presbyterian/Independent disputes in England when he traveled to England for several years representing his colony to the king (see his autobiography). After the Great Ejection when Puritans were forced out of the Church of England, Samuel went back to Dublin and gathered a congregation, which met at his house till a meeting-house was erected in New Row – for which he was arrested and imprisoned. When he died (1671), his brother Nathaniel took over as pastor of the congregation in Dublin. Nathaniel joined the “happy union” of 1691 between Presbyterians and Independents, but was a leader in its disruption, owing to the heresies of Daniel Williams (1643?–1716), D.D. (see my post Neonomian Presbyterians vs Antinomian Congregationalists?).
The Mathers were thoroughly Independent, and as such, they were willing to acknowledge certain truths in Scripture that Presbyterians would not. As I noted in my post Neonomian Presbyterians vs Antinomian Congregationalists?:
During the Assembly debate, the Dissenting Brethren (Independents) argued that we cannot look to Israel and the Old Covenant as a foundation for church government because in the Old Covenant there was a mixture of church and state. If we follow the New Testament pattern, we see churches organized by voluntary congregations of visible saints called out of the world. The Presbyterians pointed out that if the Jewish model of the church is given up, paedobaptism goes with it. But the Congregationalists did not budge.
The Congregationalists were willing to see the biblical discontinuity between Israel and the Church while Presbyterians were not. Samuel Mather’s book on typology is a great demonstration of this fact. In the Preface, Nathaniel (who published his brothers’ book post-humously) notes:
It is not expected that every one, much less critical and captious Heads, will subscribe to everything which they may here meet with. In so diffuse and vast and withal so obscure a subject, and so untrodden a path, it is no wonder if every one will not tread in just the same steps with him; for there are some things wherein he departs from the sentiments of some other learned and judicious persons. His making some of the old legal ordinances types of the instituted church, and ordinances under the New Testament and our ordinances the antitypes of theirs, it may be some may not assent unto, following therein Ames Prol. in Ps. 2. and Mr. Jeans, who (Exam. Exam. p. 241) cites CHamier tom. 4. 1. 9. c.II. Sect. 13. 15. pag. 515. Tilenus Syntag. Part. ult. Disp. 63. Sect. 12. Ames. Bellarm. Enerv. tom. 3.1.4.c.7 to which he might have added those words of this tom. 3. lib.1 cap.4. Thes. 13. and lib.2.cap.4.Thes.4. But others there are who go with this our author. See Beza on 1 Cor 10.6. and on 1 Pet. 3.21. and Mr. Cotten, Holiness of Church-Members, cap.2 sect. 12 and 13. Not to mention any of the Schoolmen, or the elder Writers among Christians, who are very frequent and very express to this purpose. Nor can it be denied that there is a common nature wherein their institutions and ours agree, the one being a shadow or darker adumbration, the other a more lightsome and lievely image of the same things. And it is beyond all contradiction, that the Holy Ghost himself doth frequently intrust us in our duty, with reference to our institutions, from theirs under the Old Testament, with relation to their typical ordinances. As for his calling our institutions the antitypes to theirs, tho there should be a truth in that observation, Theologi Graeci Typum & Antitypum promiscue usurpant pro iisdem, pro re significat nunquam. Jodoc.Laren. apud Twiss. Animadv. in Corv. Def. Armin. cont. Tilen. pag. 280. yet there is a strict and proper acceptation of the Word, wherein it may be said that our institutions are the antitypes of theris: vid. Jun. Animadv. in Bell. Contr. 3. lib. 1. cap. 9. not. 25. and in that sense the Holy Ghost useth it, 1 Pet. 3. 21. Nor needs any one stumble at our author’s using it in somewhat a different signification; for usage is the master and rule of language; Loquendum cum vulgo, sentiendum cum Doctis.
Nathaniel notes that Samuel did not necessarily work out all the details and implications of these points because he delivered these writings as sermons and died (1671) before he could refine and edit them for publication.
With that long introduction out of the way, here is some of what Samuel Mather had to say about Israel and the Church.
Definition of a Type
First, he defined a type:
… a type is a shadow of good things to come, Hebr 10.1. The law having a shadow of good things to come, Col 2.17. Which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.
There be three thing included in this Description.
- There is some outward or sensible thing, that represents some other higher thing.
- There is the thing represented thereby, which is good things to come, which we call the Antitype.
- There is the work of the Type, which is to shadow forth or represent these future good things.
…A type is some outward or sensible thing ordained of God under the Old Testament, to represent and hold forth something of Christ in the New.
Then answered how we may know something is a type:
Here ariseth a Question. How may we know when a thing is a type, and that the Lord did ordain and design it to that end and use?
The Answer is. We cannot safely judge of this but by the Scripture.
- When there is express Scripture for it…
- When there is a permutation of names between the type and the antitype, this is a clear indication of the mind of God. As for instance, Christ is called David, Ezek 34.23 and 37.24, Hos. 3.5. this shews that David was a type of him and Christ was the true David.
So Christ is called Adam, the second Adam, Cor 15.45.So he is called Israel, Isai. 49.3.He is called that Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1.29 and our Passover that is sacrificed for us, 1 Cor 5.7. this shews that the Paschal Lamb was a type of him.He is called the Bread of Life, and the true Bread from Heaven, Joh. 6. 32, 35. this shews that the manna did relate to him.
So the Church of the New Testament is called Jerusalem, Gal 4.26. but Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the Mother of us all – Rev 21.2. I saw the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of Heaven. We may hence conclude that Jerusalem was a type of the Church.
So it is said, that the odours or incense are prayers of the saints. Rev. 5. 8. Incense therefore was a type of prayer.
The Gospel-Church is called Israel, Gal 6.16. Peace be on them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. Therefore that people were a type of the Church of God under the New Testament.
Gospel-Ministers are called the Sons of Levi, Mal. 3. 3. the Prophet there speaking of the coming of Christ, he saith, He shall purifie the sons of Levi, that is, raise up a purer Ministry.
There is nothing more frequent in the Scriptures, than for the Antitype to be called by the name of the Type. And sometimes on the other side, the Type bears the names and the titles belonging indeed and more properly to the Antitype.
…Sometimes the types are not so explicitly taught, but implied; and then a thing may be known to be a type by diligent observing and comparing the phrase of the Prophets in the Old Testament, and of the Apostles in the New.
Men must not indulge their own fancies, as the Popish writers use to do, with the allegorical senses, as they call them; except we have some Scripture ground for it. It is not safe to make any thing a type meerly upon our own fancies and imaginations; it is God’s prerogative to make types.
Israel as a Type
The whole nation of the Jews. They were a typical people; their Church-state being very ceremonial and peculiar to those legal times, (Therefore now ceased and abolished) did adumbrate and shadow forth two things.
- Christ himself; hence Christ is called Israel, Isa. 49.3. By Israel is meant Christ, and all the faithful, as members of him their head.
- They were a type of the Church of God under the New Testament. Hence the Church is called Israel, Gal 6.16 and Rev 7. The twelve tribes of Israel are numbered up by name, to shew forth the Lord’s particular care of every one of his people in particular. That place is not meant properly of Old Israel, because it relates to the times of the Antichristian locusts; compare cap 7. with cap. 9.4.The analogy lies in this, that they were a peculiar people to the Lord, chosen and singled out by him from all the world: So is Christ the Lord’s chosen, Behold my servant whom I have chosen, mine elect in whom my Soul delighteth: So are all the Saints, 1 Pet 2.9. A royal nation, a peculiar people, gathered from among all nations, Rev 5.9. Hence the enemies of Israel were typical enemies; as Egypt and Babylon under the Old Testament, types of Antichristian enemies under the New: And the providences of God towards that people of Old, types and shadows of his intended future dispensations towards his people under the New; as you will see further when we come to speak of typical providences.
Moreover, not only the temple, and the priests there,but the whole land of Canaan and the people of Israel, were a typical land and a typical people; (as hath been formerly and shall be further shewed) all the fruits of the land had a typical holiness; the first fruits being virtually the whole, they were a typical dedication of the whole.
The use of these precious stones [on the priest’s garments] was for the writing of the names of the twelve children of Israel in them, that the High Priest might bear them upon his shoulders for a memorial before the Lord: See Exod 28. 9, 10, 11, 12. Now the Priest being a type of Christ, and the people of Israel a type of the whole church of God; their being born thus upon the shoulders of the High Priest clothed with this sacred Ephod intimated three things.
- The Lord Jesus Christ his supporting of this church and people, and bearing them up, as upon the shoulders of his power and grace and government, Isa. 9.6. the Government shall be upon his shoulders: So he is said to do with the lost sheep Luke 15.5 Isa. 46. 3, 4. hearken unto me, O House of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are born by me form the belly, which are carried from the womb, and even to your old age, I am he, and even to boary hairs I will carry you, I have made you, and I will bear, even I will carry, and will deliver you…
To unfold the mystery of these things a little more particularly.
- The precious stones, with the names of the Children of Israel, signifie all the saints, the whole church and people of God. Israel was a typical people; therefore the whole church of God is called Israel, Gal 6.16. As many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them and mercy, and upon (or even upon) the Israel of God. Hence the same Apostle distinguisheth of outward Jews and inward Jews, Rom 2. two last. And Christ calls Nathaniel an Israelite indeed, John 1. 47…
Samuel does not fully work out the implications of these statements for things like the Mosaic Covenant. However, he perhaps takes a step towards the progress and development of later congregationalists (like Petto and Owen) who argue the Mosaic covenant operated on a works principle when he says the Mosaic Covenant or dispensation was a type of the Covenant of Works. See pages 92-93.
In his discussion of circumcision, Mather does identify the covenant of circumcision as the covenant of grace. However, he also makes statements such as
If we consider Abraham as the head of the covenant to that church and people: So he is a type of Christ, the head of the second Covenant. You know God covenanted with Abraham for his seed: So he doth with Christ for all his elect. God’s promise to Abraham was to give a seed to him, and an inheritance to his seed, viz. the land of Canaan, the land of Promise: So God did promise to Jesus Christ, that he should see his seed, Isai. 53. 10, 11. and to bring them to Heaven, Heb 2. 10 – Jesus Christ is the true head of the second covenant, he engageth and undertakes for all his seed: Abraham was but a typical head thereof.
Mather runs into some trouble here because in his discussion of the covenant of circumcision (pg 176) he argues there are only two covenants: the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. It wasn’t the Covenant of Works, so it must be the Covenant of Grace. But here he distinguishes between the Covenant of Grace, of which Christ is the head with the church the members, and the covenant of which Abraham was a head with the nation of Jews the members (which were a type of the church). The solution that Owen later expounded upon is that there are more than two covenants in Scripture. The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace, but typical covenants related to typical people and blessings.
Noah’s Covenant and the rainbow the sign thereof, was a type of the covenant of grace, Gen 9.12, 13. It is a question whether there was any rainbow before? It may seem not: Because it had been small comfort and assurance to the new world, to see that which they had seen before, and to have such a sign of the covenant. Therefore some think that the rainbow was not from the beginning: But as the Lord gave a new promise; so he created a new thing for a sign thereof.
But how may it appear that the Covenant of Grace was here held forth? See Isa. 54. 9, 10. This is unto me as the Waters of Noah, etc. Ezek 1. ult. As the appearance of the Bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain: so was the appearance of the brightness round about – Rev 10. 1 and 4. 3.
Well, if the Noahic Covenant was a type of the covenant of grace, then it was not the covenant of grace. It was also not the covenant of works. Therefore it must be a separate covenant and there must be more than two covenants in Scripture. If that is the case, then Mather’s argument that the covenant of circumcision is the covenant of grace fails.
In sum, as a Congregationalist, Mather was willing to note Scripture’s clear teaching that Israel and the Church are not one and the same but are instead related by way of type and antitype. The baptists grasped the implications of this most clearly.
See my post Blood of bulls and goats : blood of Christ :: physical Israel : spiritual Israel for more.