They are not all Israel, who are of Israel (Rom 9:6)

[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”).

Answering Arminians

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.

-Systematic Theology

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.

Conclusion

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].

For more, see http://www.1689federalism.com as well as Blood of bulls and goats : blood of Christ :: physical Israel : spiritual Israel and Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist

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.

A Short Description of the Difference between the Bond-Woman and the Free, as They Are the Two Covenants

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.

Nehemiah Coxe

“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)

From “Children of Promise”: Spiritual Paternity and Patriarch Typology in Galatians and Romans,

[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).

A Summary of Why Baptists Appeal to Owen

In published works (see here, here, here, and here), baptists have pointed out that Owen’s covenant theology, as articulated in his commentary on Hebrews, departs from Westminster Federalism and aligns very closely with 1689 Federalism.

However, as this information has begun to reach wider audiences and become general knowledge, many people have not taken the time to understand the claims. For example, I continue to see people post links to Owen’s tract on infant baptism and to Lee Gatiss’ articles at Ref21 (the ones he wrote against Denault’s book without bothering to read Denault’s book), thinking that this addresses the claim. None of these people demonstrate they understand why baptists reference Owen, yet they are content to dismiss any such appeal as unfounded.

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.

Proverbs 18:2

I am disappointed by this, not simply because I want to win an argument, but because I genuinely value the opportunity to discuss with people I disagree with. Iron sharpens iron. But a discussion requires both parties to listen when the other speaks. Please take the time to listen to this summary. If you are then interested in discussing the claim, please take the time to read the published works. If you don’t have time, please don’t bother forming an opinion on the matter.

(Some have attempted to engage with the actual claims regarding Owen, which I appreciate. See my responses here.)

  1. Both 21st century baptists and 17th century baptists know that John Owen was a paedobaptist. No one has claimed that Owen was ever a baptist, even secretly.
  2. Owen self-consciously departed from the Westminster/Calvin/reformed view of covenant theology. Baptists appeal to him because he demonstrates that Westminster federalism, following Calvin, is unbiblical.

    1. Owen denied that the Old and New Covenants were two administrations of the same covenant. “Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended… This is the nature and substance of that covenant which God made with that people; a particular, temporary covenant it was, and not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace.”  p.85-93, 105 PDF; v6;2 OUTLINE
    2. Owen denied that the Old Covenant (Mosaic) was the Adamic Covenant of Works and said it was instead a covenant of works limited to Israel’s temporal blessing in the land of Canaan. “the covenant of works, absolutely the old, or first covenant that God made with men. But this is not the covenant here intended… This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works… when our apostle disputes against justification by the law, or by works of the law, he does not intend the works peculiar to the covenant of Sinai, such as were the rites and ceremonies of the worship then instituted; but he intends also the works of the first covenant, which alone had the promise of life annexed to them… The covenant of works had its promises, but they were all remunerative, respecting an antecedent obedience in us; (so were all those which were peculiar unto the covenant of Sinai)… he moreover prescribed unto them laws, rules, and terms of obedience, whereon they should hold and enjoy that land, with all the privileges annexed unto the possession thereof. And these are both expressed and frequently inculcated, in the repetition and promises of the law… So did God exercise the right, and power, and authority of a husband towards a wife that had broken covenant. And herein, as in many other things in that dispensation, did God give a representation of the nature of the covenant of works, and the issue of it…” p.74, 83, 94, 103, 101, 160 PDFv6;2.2, v9;3.1.5 OUTLINE
      1. Implication of 1 & 2: Contra Westminster, there are more than two covenants in Scripture. Therefore the claim that every covenant after the fall must be the Covenant of Grace is incorrect (according to Owen).
    3. Owen said the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace. “I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called ‘the new covenant,’… The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.” p.93, 147 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2 OUTLINE
    4. Owen said the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace existed only as a promise during the Old Testament era and never as a covenant. “it was always the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning… But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect unto any other things, nor was it so under the old testament…absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16.” p.89-90 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2.1 OUTLINE
      1. This was the central crux of Owen’s 150 page exegesis of Hebrews 8:6-13, not a passing comment that can be dismissed.
    5. Owen said the Abrahamic Covenant was not the Covenant of Grace, though it was related to it. “When God renewed the promise of it [the Covenant of Grace] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise… The νομοτηετεο, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament” p.90 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2.1.1 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: Membership and ordinances of the Abrahamic Covenant do not determine membership and ordinances of the Covenant of Grace.
    6. Owen said the Covenant of Grace operated “invisibly” as a promise prior to its legal establishment in the death of Christ, at which point it took on visible ordinances of worship unique to it. “This is the meaning of the word νομοτηετεο: “established,” say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance unto the church. 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 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. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by νομοτηετεο, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it… The νομοτηετεο, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament; for it wanted two things thereunto:… (2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of all the worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properly so called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of all the worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are to restipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the new covenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is not the promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutely considered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, in its establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all its benefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship and obedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,” we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worship which by it is settled in the church.” p.78, 91 PDFv6;1.2.1.9.2.2.2.1.2 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: No ordinances in the Old Testament (i.e. circumcision) were ordinances of the Covenant of Grace. The only ordinances of the Covenant of Grace are the ordinances of the New Covenant.
    7. Owen said Abraham had a two-fold privilege that corresponded to a two-fold seed. “Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant [of grace]: — 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 [of grace], the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it… 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… 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.” p.175 PDF (from Heb. vol I introduction, 1668 – 12 years before his Hebrews 8 commentary)
    8. Owen said this two-fold seed were mixed for a time. “both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only” p.175 PDF
    9. Owen said the privilege of the carnal seed, and the worship associated with it, ceased at the coming of Christ. “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… It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth. That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed?… Seeing, therefore, that their other privilege was come to an end, with all the carnal ordinances that attended it, by the actual coming of the Messiah, whereunto they were subservient, if they did not, by faith in the promised seed, attain an interest in this of the spiritual blessing, it is evident that they could on no account be considered as actual sharers in the covenant of God… It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also… (1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.
      (2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.” p.175 PDF

      1. Implication: The relationship of Abraham’s carnal seed to Abraham has no relevance after the coming of Christ.
    10. Owen said only the spiritual seed remained and new ordinances were established fit for them. “(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.” p.175 PDF
    11. Owen said only the spiritual seed is the church of Christ. “Now, it is evident that it is the second privilege, or spiritual seed, wherein the church, to whom the promises are made, is founded, and whereof it doth consist, — namely, in them who by faith are interested in the covenant of Abraham, whether they be of the carnal seed or no… And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages. Wheresoever this covenant is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church; unto whom all the promises and privileges of the church do belong. Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one church taken away, and another set up in the room thereof; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith… But the foundation of their [carnal seed’s] plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only.” p.175 PDF
      1. Implication: Abraham’s carnal seed, as such, have never been the church.
    12. In 1668 (“Oneness of the Church”) Owen said this two-fold privilege of the two-fold seed both came from the Abrahamic Covenant, with one expiring and one remaining. In 1680 (Hebrews 8) Owen clarified that the carnal privilege & seed belonged to the Abrahamic Covenant, while the spiritual privilege & seed belonged to the Covenant of Grace/New Covenant. “When God renewed the promise of it [the Covenant of Grace] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise… The νομοτηετεο, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament” p.90 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2.1.1 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: The idea that the Abrahamic Covenant, in its substance, was made with the elect, but in its administration it was made with non-elect (Rom 9:6), is incorrect. The substance of the Abrahamic Covenant was made with Abraham’s carnal seed. The two Israels of Rom 9:6ff refer to two different covenants.
    13. Owen said that Abraham’s carnal seed (Israel) was a type of Abraham’s spiritual seed (the Church). “The persons with whom this covenant [new covenant] is made are also expressed: “The house of Israel, and the house of Judah.”… Wherefore this house of Israel and house of Judah may be considered two ways: [1.] As that people were the whole entire posterity of Abraham. [2.] As they were typical, and mystically significant of the whole church of God.Hence alone it is that the promises of grace under the old testament are given unto the church under these names, because they were types of them who should really and effectually be made partakers of them… In the second sense the whole church of elect believers is intended under these denominations, being typified by them. These are they alone, being one made of twain, namely, Jews and Gentiles, with whom the covenant is really made and established, and unto whom the grace of it is actually communicated. For all those with whom this covenant is made shall as really have the law of God written in their hearts, and their sins pardoned, according unto the promise of it, as the people of old were brought into the land of Canaan by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham. These are the true Israel and Judah, prevailing with God, and confessing unto his name.” p. 142 PDFv8;7.1.2 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: Israel was not the church.
    14. Owen said that the New Covenant, unlike the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenant, is made with the elect alone. “The principal efficient cause of our learning the knowledge of God under the new covenant is included in this part of the promise… There is added the universality of the promise with respect unto them with whom this covenant is made: “All of them, from the least unto the greatest;” —a proverbial speech, signifying the generality intended without exception… Obs. XVIII. The instructive ministry of the old testament, as it was such only, and with respect unto the carnal rites thereof, was a ministry of the letter, and not of the Spirit, which did not really effect in the hearts of men the things which it taught. —The spiritual benefit which was obtained under it proceeded from the promise, and not from the efficacy of the law, or the covenant made at Sinai. For as such, as it was legal and carnal, and had respect only unto outward things, it is here laid aside… The proposition is universal, as to the modification of the subject, “all;” but in the word aujtw~n, “of them,” it is restrained unto those alone with whom this covenant is made… Obs. XXIV. Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the new covenant can be pretended… Obs. XXVII. Persons destitute of this saving knowledge are utter strangers unto the covenant of grace; for this is a principal promise and effect of it, wherever it doth take place… [T]he whole church of elect believers is intended under these denominations, being typified by them. These are they alone, being one made of twain, namely, Jews and Gentiles, with whom the covenant is really made and established, and unto whom the Mace of it is actually communicated. For all those with whom this covenant is made shall as really have the law of God written in their hearts, and their sins pardoned, according unto the promise of it, as the people of old were brought into the land of Canaan by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham… Obs. X. The covenant of grace in Christ is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. —For by the making of this covenant with any, the effectual communication of the grace of it unto them is principally intended. Nor can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins are pardoned by virtue thereof, and in whose hearts the law of God is written; which are the express promises of it.” p.191-204, 144 PDFv8;7.2, v11;7 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: The nature of membership in the Old and New Covenants differs. The idea of a two-sided membership in the Covenant of Grace, founded upon a substance (elect)/administration (non-elect) view of the Abrahamic and Old Covenants (Rom 9:6), is incorrect.
    15. Owen said that faith is a blessing/fruit of the New Covenant, not a condition of it. “The promises of the covenant of grace are better than those of any other covenant, as for many other reasons, so especially because the grace of them prevents any condition or qualification on our part… But those promises, namely, of the pardon of sin and writing of the law in our hearts, which the apostle expressly insisteth upon as the peculiar promises of this covenant, do take place and are effectual antecedently unto our covenant obedience. For although faith be required in order of nature antecedently unto our actual receiving of the pardon of sin… But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises… It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant… It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part… And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.” p.83, 162-6 PDFv6;1.2.1.9.3.2, v10.2.3 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: We enter the Covenant of Grace/New Covenant in the effectual call. See New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen.
    16. Owen said that, unlike the Old Covenant, the New Covenant cannot be broken. “So did God exercise the right, and power, and authority of a husband towards a wife that had broken covenant. And herein, as in many other things in that dispensation, did God give a representation of the nature of the covenant of works, and the issue of it…‘This was the issue of things with them with whom the first covenant was made. They received it, entered solemnly into the bonds of it, took upon themselves expressly the performance of its terms and conditions, were sprinkled with the blood of it; but they “continued not in it,” and were dealt withal accordingly. God used the right and authority of a husband with whom a wife breaketh covenant; he “neglected them,” shut them out of his house, deprived them of their dowry or inheritance, and slew them in the wilderness.On this declaration, God promiseth to make another covenant with them, wherein all these evils should be prevented. This is the covenant which the apostle designs to prove better and more excellent than the former… That covenant was broken, but this shall never be so, because provision is made in the covenant itself against any such event… the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken…”   p.160-2 PDFv10.2.3 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: There are no such things as covenant-breakers in the New Covenant, as there were in the Old (Mosaic and Abrahamic).
    17. Owen said that all Old Testament saints were saved by the New Covenant working invisibly (as promise) prior to its legal establishment in the death of Christ. “This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such… it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe… Obs. XVIII. The instructive ministry of the old testament, as it was such only, and with respect unto the carnal rites thereof, was a ministry of the letter, and not of the Spirit, which did not really effect in the hearts of men the things which it taught. —The spiritual benefit which was obtained under it proceeded from the promise, and not from the efficacy of the law, or the covenant made at Sinai. For as such, as it was legal and carnal, and had respect only unto outward things, it is here laid aside…”  p.104, 200 PDFv6;2.2.4.5, v11;6.2 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: Appeal to the Old Covenant to answer questions about union with Christ is unbiblical and inappropriate.
  3. Owen continued to affirm paedobaptism.
    1. Owen never published his “Of Infant Baptism” tract. Owen scholar Dr. Crawford Gribben notes “The only thing we can be sure of about “Of Infant Baptism” is that Owen did not publish this tract within his own lifetime, that it did not circulate as representing his thinking on this issue for almost 40 years after his death when it appeared in a volume alongside many other texts reconstructed from sermon notes taken by an auditor.” The statements in this tract do not reflect Owen’s mature, meticulously argued published work on covenant theology. Whatever value this tract of dubious origin may have, it does not have precedence over his Hebrews commentary, which must be dealt with. Please listen to Dr. Gribben’s lecture.
    2. Owen’s “Of Infant Baptism” contradicts his Hebrews commentary.
      1. “Of Infant Baptism” speaks throughout of “the covenant” in the singular. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen rejects this approach and proceeds to distinguish between post-fall covenants in great detail.
      2. “Of Infant Baptism” refers to the Mosaic Covenant as “the covenant [of grace] in its legal administration.” In his Hebrews commentary, Owen rejects this view.
      3. “Of Infant Baptism” says the Covenant of Grace was confirmed and sealed in Exodus 24:7-8. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen denies that the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.
      4. “Of Infant Baptism” says the Covenant of Circumcision was the Covenant of Grace made with Christ mystical. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen distinguishes between these two and denies the Gen 17:7 covenant was the Covenant of Grace made with the elect, though it contained a promise of it.
      5. “Of Infant Baptism” says the circumcision of Abraham’s offspring was a spiritual privilege of “the covenant.” In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says that the Covenant of Circumcision pertained to the “carnal privilege” given to his “carnal seed,” not the “spiritual privilege” given to his “spiritual seed” (in the Covenant of Grace).
      6. “Of Infant Baptism” says the privilege of carnal offspring has never been revoked. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says the privilege of Abraham’s carnal offspring ceased at the coming of Christ.
      7. “Of Infant Baptism” says the sign of circumcision was never revoked, only changed. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says the carnal ordinances came to an end/ceased and were replaced by new ordinances.
      8. “Of Infant Baptism” says according to the law of creation, children have a right to the privileges of whatever covenant their parents are in. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says Abraham’s carnal offspring never had any spiritual privilege because they were his carnal offspring, and that this was the great mistake of the Jews – though they did have carnal privileges. He also says that anyone destitute of saving knowledge is an utter stranger unto the covenant of grace and without saving knowledge there is no interest in the New Covenant, unlike the Old.
      9. “Of Infant Baptism” argues that God’s promise to be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed” refers to the carnal offspring of believers. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen explained that Abraham had a two-fold seed and that his carnal seed’s status as set apart unto God ceased at the coming of Christ, while his spiritual seed (those who have his faith) alone remained – and that the two seeds have a type/anti-type relationship. He also said “This is the general expression of any covenant relation between God and men, ‘He will be unto them a God, and they shall be to him a people.’ And it is frequently made use of with respect unto the first covenant [old covenant], which yet was disannulled. God owned the people therein for his peculiar portion, and they avouched him to be their God alone.” p.185 PDF
    3. Owen affirmed paedobaptism elsewhere in his Hebrews commentary.
      1. “they are the “people of God” that are interested in this sabbatism. And the apostle makes use of this description of them upon a double account: — 1. Because their being of “the people of God,” that is, in covenant (for where a people is God’s people, he is their God, Hosea 2:23), was the greatest and most comprehensive privilege that the Hebrews had to boast of or to trust in. This was their glory, and that which exalted them above all nations in the world. So their church pleads with respect unto all others, Isaiah 63:19, “We are thine: thou never barest rule over them; thy name was not called on them;” — that is, they were never called the people of Jehovah, because never taken into covenant with him. This privilege whereunto they trusted, the apostle lets them know belongs as well to them that believe under the new testament as it did to them under the old. Abram was now become Abraham, “a father of many nations.” And as those who were his carnal seed of old were the people of God, so God had now a people in and of all those who were his children according to the faith. They may see, therefore, that they shall lose nothing, no privilege, by coming over to the gospel state by faith in Christ Jesus. Upon a new account they become “the people of God;” which interests them and their children in the covenant, with the seals and all the ordinances of it, even as formerly. For this name, “people,” doth not firstly respect individuals, but a collective body of men, with and in all their relations. Believers, not singly considered, but they and their seed, or their children, are this people; and where they are excluded from the initial ordinance of the covenant, I know not how believers can be called “the people of God.” 2. He proceeds further, and shows them that indeed this privilege is now transferred over from the old estate and Canaan rest unto them that shall and do enter into this rest of God under the gospel. Hence, instead of losing the privilege of being “the people of God” by faith in Christ, he lets them know that they could no longer retain it without it. If they failed herein, they would be no longer “the people of God;” and as a signification thereof, they would become “no people” at all.” p.407 PDF (Hebrews 4:9)
        1. Notice carefully what Owen affirms here. He maintains his position that there was a two-fold seed of Abraham with a two-fold privilege. The Hebrews were in covenant with God on account of their being Abraham’s carnal seed. That privilege has ceased (“could no longer retain it”). They may still be considered “the people of God” but “on a new account”: faith. Owen’s argument for infant baptism here reduces to the meaning of the phrase “a people.” He argues that the Hebrews would not have to change their conception of what it means to be “a people” because “a people” must necessarily be taken in an earthly sense (even though referring to believers) and therefore must include physical offspring. But there is no reason why “a people” cannot be read in a spiritual sense as referring to Christ’s spiritual kingdom – and every reason why it must be.
      2. “And is it possible that any man should be a loser by the coming of Christ, or by his own coming unto Christ? It is against the whole gospel once to imagine it in the least instance. Let it now be inquired whether it were not a great privilege of the people of God of old, that their infant seed were taken into covenant with them, and were made partakers of the initial seal thereof? Doubtless it was the greatest they enjoyed, next to the grace they received for the saving of their own souls. That it was so granted them, so esteemed by them, may be easily proved. And without this, whatever they were, they were not a people. Believers under the gospel are, as we have spoken, the people of God; and that with all sorts of advantages annexed unto that condition, above what were enjoyed by them who of old were so. How is it, then, that this people of God, made so by Jesus Christ in the gospel, should have their charter, upon its renewal, razed with a deprivation of one of their choicest rights and privileges? Assuredly it is not so. And therefore if believers are now, as the apostle says they are, “the people of God,” their children have a right to the initial seal of the covenant.” p.409 PDF (Hebrews 4:9)
        1. This is a continuation of the above argument (2 pages later). Two things to consider. First, recall that Owen refined his view of the Abrahamic Covenant 6 years later (1674 -> 1680) in his commentary on Hebrews 8, noting that although the Abrahamic Covenant contained a promise of the future establishment of the Covenant of Grace (Abraham’s spiritual privileges), it was formally a covenant concerning Abraham’s carnal privileges. Second, Owen previously explained that the inclusion of Abraham’s carnal seed in his covenant was only a carnal privilege, not a spiritual one. “It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.” (Oneness of the Church p.175 PDF). So there never was a privilege given to believers to have their children included in covenant with them and thus no privilege has been lost. There was only the carnal privilege given to Abraham to have his children included in his carnal privilege. Finally, note in the previous quote that Owen says Abraham’s carnal seed were “a peculiar people” by virtue of their carnal descent alone, apart from faith – which has now ceased.
      3. “he lets the Hebrews know that in the gospel state there is no loss of privilege in any thing as to what the church enjoyed under the law of Moses… And this is enough to secure the application of the initial seal of the covenant unto the infant seed of believers. For whereas it was granted to the church under the old testament as a signal favor and spiritual privilege, it is derogatory to the glory of Christ and honor of the gospel to suppose that the church is now deprived of it; for in the whole system and frame of worship God had ordained “the better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” p.516-17 PDF (Hebrews 4:15)
        1. As above, according to Owen’s explanation of Abraham’s two-fold privilege corresponding to a two-fold seed, there was never any spiritual privilege given to believing Abraham to have his children in covenant with him. That was a carnal privilege given to Abraham according to the flesh, which has now ceased. That privilege was never given to the church.
      4. “For whereas there were two sorts of persons that were baptized, namely, those that were adult at their first hearing of the gospel, and the infant children of believers, who were admitted to be members of the church; the first sort were instructed in the principles mentioned before they were admitted unto baptism, by the profession whereof they laid the foundation of their own personal right thereunto; but the other, being received as a part and branches of a family whereupon the blessing of Abraham was come, and to whom the promise of the covenant was extended, being thereon baptized in their infancy, were to be instructed in them as they grew up unto years of understanding. Afterwards, when they were established in the knowledge of these necessary truths, and had resolved on personal obedience unto the gospel, they were offered unto the fellowship of the faithful. And hereon, giving the same account of their faith and repentance which others had done before they were baptized, they were admitted into the communion of the church, the elders thereof laying their hands on them in token of their acceptation, and praying for their confirmation in the faith. Hence the same doctrines became previously necessary unto both these rites;–before baptism to them that were adult; and towards them who were baptized in infancy, before the imposition of hands. And I do acknowledge that this was the state of things in the apostolical churches, and that it ought to be so in all others.” p.70 PDF (Hebrews 6:1-2)
        1. See above.
      5. “Parents bless their children by endeavouring to instate them in their own covenant-interest. God having promised to be a God unto believers, and to their seed in and by them, they do three ways bless them with the good things thereof: first, By communicating unto them the privilege of the initial seal of the covenant, as a sign, token, and pledge of their being blessed of the Lord; secondly, By pleading the promise of the covenant in their behalf; thirdly, By careful instructing of them in the mercies and duties of the covenant.” p.390 PDF (Hebrews 7:1-3)
        1. See above.
      6. “Obs. III. Divine institutions cease not without an express divine abrogation. — Where they are once granted and erected by the authority of God, they can never cease without an express act of the same authority taking them away. So was it with the institutions of the Aaronical priesthood, as the apostle declares. And this one consideration is enough to confirm the grant of the initial seal of the covenant unto the seed of present believers, which was once given by God himself in the way of an institution, and never by him revoked.” p.530 PDF (Hebrews 7:12)
        1. See above. God never gave circumcision to the seed of believers and Owen said carnal ordinances ceased along with the carnal seed.
      7. “He [Moses] found himself circumcised, and so to belong unto the circumcised people. Hereon God instructed him to inquire into the reason and nature of that distinguishing character. And so he learned that it was the token of God’s covenant with the people, the posterity of Abraham, of whom he was. It was a blessed inlet into the knowledge and fear of the true God. And whatever is pretended by some unto the contrary, it is a most eminent divine privilege, to have the seal of the covenant in baptism communicated unto the children of believers in their infancy; and a means it hath been to preserve many from fatal apostasies.” p. 182 PDF (Hebrews 11:24-26)
        1. See above. Circumcision was given to the carnal posterity of Abraham on account of Abraham’s carnal privileges, which has ceased.
    4. Owen affirmed paedobaptism in True Nature of the Gospel Church (which was written sometime in the latter half of his life and published posthumously).
      1. “(3.) Children do belong unto and have an interest in their parents’ covenant; not only in the promise of it, which gives them right unto baptism, but in the profession of it in the church covenant, which gives them a right unto all the privileges of the church whereof they are capable, until they voluntarily relinquish their claim unto them. (4.) Baptizing the children of church members, giving them thereby an admission into the visible catholic church, puts an obligation on the officers of the church to take care, what in them lieth, that they may be kept and preserved meet members of it, by a due watch over them and instruction of them. (5.) Though neither the church nor its privileges be continued and preserved, as of old, by carnal generation, yet, because of the nature of the dispensation of God’s covenant, wherein he hath promised to be a God unto believers and their seed, the advantage of the means of a gracious education in such families, and of conversion and edification in the ministry of the church, ordinarily the continuation of the church is to depend on the addition of members out of the families already incorporated in it. The church is not to be like the kingdom of the Mamalukes, wherein there was no regard unto natural successors, but it was continually made up of strangers and foreigners incorporated into it; nor like the beginning of the Roman commonwealth, which, consisting of men only, was like to have been the matter of one age alone.” (Kindle Locations 417-427).
        1. See above. Here Owen acknowledges that carnal privileges via carnal generation have ceased. God’s promise to be a God to Abraham’s seed has a two-fold fulfillment: one to each of his two seeds. As Owen has said above, Israel was made a peculiar people to God on account of their carnal descent from Abraham, not on account of spiritual descent from Abraham, and that privilege ceased at the coming of Christ.

 

That is why 17th century and 21st century baptists have appealed to Owen’s covenant theology while knowing full-well he was still a paedobaptist.

“And if our opponents think Dr. O. injured (as they are apt to clamour to that purpose) for our improvement of his words to our advantage…we say, that they are at liberty to reconcile his words to his practice if they can, to do which they have need of a considerable stock (but they are seldome unfurnisht) of artifice, and distinction, to help at this dead lift.”

Edward Hutchinson, A Treatise Concerning the Covenant, 1676, quoted in Samuel Renihan’s JIRBS 2015 article “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, a must read for anyone studying this debate.

There are strong tendencies in Owen’s thinking on the Covenant of Grace to restrict it just to Christ and his elect. Owen is a paedobaptist. But there is a lot in Owen’s thinking that I think pushes in a Baptistic direction. For Owen, the visible manifestation of the Covenant of Grace is not entirely clearly worked out in terms of children being embraced (as I read him). It’s not an area I have looked at in great detail, but I see tendencies in Owen’s ecclesiology and his understanding of the covenants that push it in a Baptistic direction.

-Carl Trueman, “Session 5 – John Owen on the Holy Spirit” @31:00

Paedobaptists may be shocked by how bold Owen’s statements above are with regards to the establishment of the New Covenant. He says that

When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it… That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by νομοτηετεο, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship… But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship.

The knee-jerk reaction is that baptists must be reading Owen wrong. There is no way he could mean what he said. That would entirely undermine the grounds for infant baptism. However, an alternative perspective is that Owen meant exactly what he said, but the issue of baptism was not his primary concern. If it was, he would not have stated things so boldly. However, as a Congregationalist, Owen’s primary concern at this point was to demonstrate that the government of the church of Christ is to be found in the New Testament, not in the Old via Israel.

This was the divide between Presbyterians, who modeled the church after Israel, and the Congregationalists, who said we may not. The Five Dissenting Brethren (Congregationalists) at the Westminster Assembly wrote “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” During the debate that ensued, the Presbyterians warned the Congregationalists that

The analogy betwixt Jewish & Christian church, little question of that little question… If this faile, the argument of Baptisme from circumcision will faile also… For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism? (See Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity).

But the Congregationlists ignored the warning and pressed on, insisting that the New Testament must determine the government of the church. It is in this vein that Owen, held captive to the Word of God in Hebrews 8, declared “That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it.”

Ergo, credobaptism.

Les & Tanner Talk Baptism

Les and Tanner, hosts of the Reformed Pubcast, recently discussed baptism at length after Les announced he had become a peadobaptist (he had been attending (member?) a PCA church for quite a while). Since most of the things they talked about have been addressed at one time or another on this blog, I thought I’d provide links to those posts with some comments.

First off, Les struggled for many years to understand the paedobaptist position but he has now grasped the substance/administration distinction, which was key for him. I will just note that fully understanding the paedobaptist position is required in order for one to fully appreciate 1689 Federalism. One can hold to 1689 Federalism without understanding Westminster Federalism, but one can’t fully appreciate it until they have a grasp on Westminster Fed. Les seems to have a clear grasp of the Westminster position, so now the conversation can really begin 🙂

Are our children heathens?

In his excellent essay “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, Samuel Renihan notes:

Jones and van Raalte draw attention to Marshall’s (and others’) accusation that the doctrine that children do not belong to the covenant of grace by birth “puts all the Infants of all Believers into the self-same condition with the Infants of Turks, and Indians.” Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 728. Coxe, Kiffin, and Knollys responded by saying, “But some may think, that this will put the children of Believers into as bad a condition, as the children of Turkes, Heathens, and any other wicked men; and this they are perswaded is a horrible thing, and a dangerous opinion. We put not the children of Believers into as bad a condition as the children of Turkes, &c. It was Adams disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit, that put all his posterity equally into a sinfull and miserable condition, Rom. 5. 12. 19. And the doctrine which Mr. CAL. and his brethren teach, doth the like. They say (and it is truth) that all the Infants of Believers…are born in sin, and are by nature children of wrath as well as others. And now let the Reader judge, Whether this their own doctrine, do not put the children of Believers into as bad a condition.” Coxe, Kiffin, and Knollys, A Declaration, 17.

 

Union with Christ

Tanner “So covenant is this agreement between two parties and there are responsibilities on both sides… My hangup in all this, as far as the New Covenant is concerned, you’re claiming that God has established this covenant with people and there are some who will be covenant keepers and there will be some who will be covenant breakers. So my issue with that claim is that is the beauty of the New Covenant is that it removes the work of the person to be a covenant keeper and Christ now becomes the covenant keeper. Christ fulfilled the responsibility that was meant for us…”

Les “Well, think about this. Think about Moses. Think about Israelites under Moses…”

Note: every time Tanner pressed Les on the implications of our union with Christ, Les’ response was “But Israel…” Baptism signifies union with Christ, so why baptize someone you don’t have reason to believe is united to Christ? Israel. Abraham. Circumcision. Of course the problem is that Scripture says the New Covenant is not like the Old Covenant, specifically on the matter of Christ’s mediation, so appeal to the Old Covenant to answer questions about union with Christ is unbiblical and inappropriate.

Hebrews 8:6 But now he hath obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.

…To proceed with the text; this covenant, whereof the Lord Christ is the mediator, is said to be a “better covenant.” Wherefore it is supposed that there was another covenant, whereof the Lord Christ was not the mediator. And in the following verses there are two covenants, a first and a latter, an old and a new, compared together. We must therefore consider what was that other covenant, than which this is said to be better; for upon the determination thereof depends the right understanding of the whole ensuing discourse of the apostle. And because this is a subject wrapped up in much obscurity, and attended with many difficulties, it will be necessary that we use the best of our diligence, both in the investigation of the truth and in the declaration of it, so as that it may be distinctly apprehended…

They differ in their mediators. The mediator of the first covenant was Moses. “It was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator,” Galatians 3:19. And this was no other but Moses, who was a servant in the house of God, Hebrews 3:5. And he was a mediator, as designed of God, so chosen of the people, in that dread and consternation which befell them upon the terrible promulgation of the law For they saw that they could no way bear the immediate presence of God, nor treat with him in their own persons. Wherefore they desired that there might be an internuncius, a mediator between God and them, and that Moses might be the person, Deuteronomy 5:24-27. But the mediator of the new covenant is the Son of God himself. For “there is one God, and one mediator between God and and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all,” 1 Timothy 2:5. He who is the Son, and the Lord over his own house, graciously undertook in his own person to be the mediator of this covenant; and herein it is unspeakably preferred before the old covenant.

Hebrews 8:9 Not according to that covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant

This was the issue of things with them with whom the first covenant was made. They received it, entered solemnly into the bonds of it, took upon themselves expressly the performance of its terms and conditions, were sprinkled with the blood of it; but they “continued not in it,” and were dealt withal accordingly. God used the right and authority of a husband with whom a wife breaketh covenant; he “neglected them,” shut them out of his house, deprived them of their dowry or inheritance, and slew them in the wilderness.

On this declaration, God promiseth to make another covenant with them, wherein all these evils should be prevented. This is the covenant which the apostle designs to prove better and more excellent than the former. And this he cloth principally from the mediator and surety of it, compared with the Aaronical priests, whose office and service belonged wholly unto the administration of that first covenant. And he confirms it also from the nature of this covenant itself, especially with respect unto its efficacy and duration. And hereunto this testimony is express, evidencing how this covenant is everlastingly, by the grace administered in it, preventive of that evil success which the former had by the sin of the people.

Hence he says of it, Ouj kata< th>n, —”Not according unto it;” a covenant agreeing with the former neither in promises, efficacy, nor duration. For what is principally promised here, namely, the giving of a new heart, Moses expressly affirms that it was not done in the administration of the first covenant. It is neither a renovation of that covenant nor a reformation of it, but utterly of another nature, by whose introduction and establishment that other was to be abolished, abrogated, and taken away, with all the divine worship and service which was peculiar thereunto. And this was that which the apostle principally designed to prove and convince the Hebrews of.

-Owen (Commentary, Hebrews 8:9)

Owen is clear that 1) the New Covenant is not a continuation of the Old Covenant. It is an entirely separate covenant. And 2) What makes the New Covenant better is specifically union with Christ as surety of the covenant, which was precisely Tanner’s point.

How were they saved?

Les’ assumption is that saved members of the Old Covenant were saved by the Old Covenant. He says if they looked upon the typological sacrifices and thereby learned of Christ and had faith in Christ, they were therefore saved by the Old Covenant. He also says that Abraham believed God’s promise and was justified, so he was therefore justified by the Abrahamic Covenant. But this does not follow at all. Only Christ saves and Christ is only mediator and surety of the New Covenant. Again, Owen:

This covenant [Old Covenant] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Corinthians: 3:9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works…

[N]o man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ therein.

-Commentary on Hebrews 8:6

According to Owen, the Old Covenant was only about temporal blessing and curse in the land of Canaan. Israelites became ceremonially unclean, which required ceremonial animal sacrifices to cleanse them (Hebrews 9:9-10). Those animal sacrifices, and thus the Old Covenant, did not forgive any man eternally. It only taught typologically of the work of Christ, which alone saves by virtue of the New Covenant. Furthermore, there were sins under the Old Covenant that had no sacrifices to cover and thus no way of forgiving them.

The Old Covenant does not grant anyone faith. It does not give anyone a new heart. Only the New Covenant does. Not even the Abrahamic Covenant does. The Abrahamic Covenant did not grant forgiveness of sins. It promised that Christ would come and grant forgiveness of sins through the New Covenant.

So yes, Abraham was justified by believing God’s promise that Christ would come and bless all nations. But Abraham’s regeneration, faith, justification, and sanctification were all blessings he received through union with Christ in the New Covenant. Just as Christ’s atonement reached back in time to save those who lived before his death, so too did the New Covenant.

I strongly encourage you to read Owen’s treatment of Hebrews 8. He spends about 150 pages explaining it because he believed reformed theologians misunderstood the Old Covenant. He wrote his exposition in 1680 after the best Puritan treatments of the subject had been written, and yet he still said “this is a subject wrapped up in much obscurity, and attended with many difficulties.” He specifically explains that he rejects the “judgment of most reformed divines” on the nature of the Old and New Covenants. Read Owen. He anticipates and answers all of the objections that are in your head right now.

Covenant Conditions

Les and Tanner continued talking about conditions of the Covenant of Grace. Tanner emphasized that Christ, as our surety, has met all the covenant conditions and we simply receive the benefits of the covenant. Les argued that Christians, and Christian children, are responsible to God in a way that pagans are not. When God “claims them” they come under all the stipulations of what it means to be in covenant with God. They’re responsible to have faith and obey God and love God (isn’t that true of everyone?). God enters covenant with Christians and their children, and it’s up to them to to fulfill their part of the covenant. God is “not obligated to fulfill my end of the bargain.”

Again, Owen disagrees with Les here. According to the Covenant of Redemption, once Christ fulfilled all the conditions, God was indeed covenantally obligated to fulfill “our end of the bargain” by granting us faith. Christ earned our faith, and therefore God is covenantally obligated to grant faith to all members of the New Covenant as a blessing of the covenant. Matthew Mason explains

According to Owen, although God’s will toward the elect was not changed upon the death of Christ, for he is immutable, Christ’s death nevertheless changed the status of the elect. On the basis of Christ’s merit, founded on God’s free engagement in the covenant of redemption with his Son, God is obliged to deliver them from the curse ipso facto. Therefore, because of Christ’s satisfaction, God is able to make out the benefits Christ purchased, without any other conditions needing to be fulfilled. In particular, Christ also purchased the condition of the covenant, faith; hence, from the time of the atonement, the elect have an absolute right to justification.

(See New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen for an extended discussion of this)

the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken… But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant…

It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

Owen: New Covenant Conditional or Absolute?

 

Ver. 11. And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.

The knowledge of the LORD may be here taken, not objectively and doctrinally, but subjectively, for the renovation of the mind in the saving knowledge of God… The proposition is universal, as to the modification of the subject, “all;” but in the word aujtw~n, “of them,” it is restrained unto those alone with whom this covenant is made…

Obs. XXIV. Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the new covenant can be pretended…

Obs. XXVII. Persons destitute of this saving knowledge are utter strangers unto the covenant of grace; for this is a principal promise and effect of it, wherever it doth take place.

-Owen on Heb 8:11

(Of course, God does not believe for us. We must believe. But Owen carefully clarifies that our faith is not a condition of the covenant itself, which is the question at hand.)

Les objects that it is the “case historically” that God does not grant faith to all those he enters covenant with. “God said to Abraham, I will be a God to you and to your children. Was he lying?” Again, Les retreats back to Israel, Abraham, Circumcision. But as we’ve noted, that is unbiblical because that is not the same covenant. Whether or not God granted faith to every member of the Abrahamic Covenant is entirely irrelevant to whether or not God grants faith to every member of the New Covenant.

I will be a God to you and your children

Was God lying? Well, Les is in a bit of a conundrum. If he believes “I will be your God” has any salvific meaning, then that raises the question of God’s covenant faithfulness when the children of believers are not saved. (See God’s Covenant Unfaithfulness?)

If the promise has no salvific meaning then why is it being appealed to? Jonathan Edwards rightly notes:

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… And 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… 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. Thus a sovereign and all-wise God was pleased to ordain things with respect to the nation of Israel…

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. And the covenant by which they were made a people of God, was a type of the covenant of grace; and so is sometimes represented as a marriage-covenant.

For an extended explanation of this quote and many similar quotes, see Blood of bulls and goats : blood of Christ :: physical Israel : spiritual Israel. Earlier, Les said his children belong to God the same way Israel belonged to God. I guess that means Les’ children have been set apart as a nation in the land of Canaan, in which case they should be circumcised, not baptized. No Israelite was ever baptized apart from a profession of saving faith in Christ.

Circumcision

Which brings us to the question of circumcision.

We will now pass on to Genesis 17. What is more largely recorded there, is briefly pointed at by Stephen in his general view of the history of Israel (Acts 7:8), “and he gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham became the father of Isaac,” etc. By the covenant of circumcision we are to understand that covenant of which a restipulation was required by the observation of this rite or ordinance, as in Genesis 17:9-11.

It is noteworthy that in this transaction of God with Abraham we first meet with an express injunction of obedience to a command (and that of positive right) as the condition of covenant interest. It is all ushered in with this prologue (Genesis 17:1), “I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be perfect.” First in these words, the all-sufficiency of God is revealed for the ensuring of the promises. Then a strict and entire obedience to his precepts is required in order to inherit the good things that were to be given by this covenant. In this mode of transacting it, the Lord was pleased to draw the first lines of that form of covenant relationship in which the natural seed of Abraham was fully stated by the law of Moses, which was a covenant of works with its condition or terms, “Do this and live.”

-Nehemiah Coxe, p. 91

For more, see Coxe and Pink on Circumcision as well as Paedobaptism and Forks, and the Appendix to the 1689 London Baptist Confession.

Romans 11 and Hebrews 10

Les also mentioned the standard Romans 11 and Hebrews 10 objection. For detailed treatments of those passages, see

1 Cor 7:14

Finally, Les appealed to 1 Cor 7:14 to argue that “When God saves you he saves everything that belongs to you.” The basic problem is that Les is equivocating on the word “save.” When God saves you, he does not save your car. Only image bearers can be saved. What Les says he means is that when God saves him, he recognizes that everything he “owns” is actually God’s and he is just a steward of it. Thus his car belongs to God, and so do his children. He is to be a good steward of his children by raising them in the fear of the Lord.

That’s all well and good, but baptism is not a sign of your stewardship of a possession. Baptism is a sign of one’s “ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.” We don’t baptize our car even though our car belongs to God because our car is not ingrafted into Christ. Neither do we baptize our children when we are saved because our children are not ingrafted into Christ simply because we are. So “When God saves you” he does not, in fact, “save everything that belongs to you.” Otherwise all the children of believers would be believers. And they’re not. It’s simply confused equivocation.

So what does 1 Cor 7:14 mean? Certainly nothing about baptism, the covenant of grace, or church membership.

See John Gill’s comments on the passage, in which he notes

The sense I have given of this passage, is agreeable to the mind of several interpreters, ancient and modern, as Jerom, Ambrose, Erasmus, Camerarius, Musculus which last writer makes this ingenuous confession; formerly, says he, I have abused this place against the Anabaptists, thinking the meaning was, that the children were holy for the parents’ faith; which though true, the present place makes nothing for the purpose: and I hope, that, upon reading this, everyone that has abused it to such a purpose will make the like acknowledgment; I am sure they ought.

See also the Appendix to the 1689 London Baptist Confession dealing with this text.

Coxe and Pink on Circumcision

It is the fatal error of Romanists and other Ritualists that signs and seals actually convey grace of themselves. Not so: only as faith is operative in the use of them are they means of blessing. Romans 4:11 helps us at this point: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” Unto Abraham, circumcision was both a sign and a seal: a sign that he had previously been justified, and a seal (pledge) that God would make good the promises which He had addressed to his faith. The rite, instead of conferring anything, only confirmed what Abraham already had. Unto Abraham, circumcision was the guarantee that the righteousness of faith which he had (before he was circumcised) should come upon or be imputed unto believing Gentiles. Thus as the rainbow was the confirmatory sign and seal of the covenant promises God had made to Noah, as circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant promises God had made to Abraham, so the tree of life was the sign and seal of the covenant promises He had made to Adam. It was appointed by God as the pledge of His faithfulness, and as an earnest of the blessings which continued fidelity would secure. Let it be expressly pointed out that, in keeping with the distinctive character of this present antitypical dispensation—when the substance has replaced the shadows—though baptism and the Lord’s Supper are divinely appointed ordinances, yet they are not seals unto the Christian. The seal of “the new covenant” is the Holy Spirit Himself (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30)! The gift of the blessed Spirit is the earnest or guaranty of our future inheritance…

The next thing we would observe is that circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had.” Again we would say, Let us be on our guard against adding to God’s Word, for nowhere does Scripture say that circumcision was a seal to anyone but to Abraham himself; and even in his case, so far was it from communicating any spiritual blessing, it simply confirmed what was already promised to him. As a seal from God, circumcision was a divine pledge or guaranty that from him should issue that seed which would bring blessing to all nations, and that, on the same terms as justifying righteousness had become his—by faith alone. It was not a seal of his faith, but of that righteousness which, in due time, was to be wrought out by the Messiah and Mediator. Circumcision was not a memorial of anything which had already been actualised, but an earnest of that which was yet future—namely, of that justifying righteousness which was to be brought in by Christ.

But did not God enjoin that all the males of Abraham’s household, and in those of his descendants, should also be circumcised? He did, and in that very fact we find definite confirmation of what has just been said above. What did circumcision seal to Abraham’s servants and slaves? Nothing. “Circumcision neither signed nor sealed the blessings of the covenant of Abraham to the individuals to whom it was by Divine appointment administered. It did not imply that they who were circumcised were accounted the heirs of the promises, either temporal or spiritual. It was not applied to mark them individually as heirs of the promises. It did not imply this even to Isaac and Jacob, who are by name designated heirs with Abraham. Their interest in the promises was secured to them by God’s expressly giving them the covenant, but was not represented in their circumcision. Circumcision marked no character, and had an individual application to no man but Abraham himself. It was the token of this covenant; and as a token or sign, no doubt applied to every promise in the covenant, but it did not designate the individual circumcised as having a personal interest in these promises. The covenant promised a numerous seed to Abraham; circumcision, as the token of that covenant, must have been a sign of this; but it did not sign this to any other. Any other circumcised individual, except Isaac and Jacob, to whom the covenant was given by name, might have been childless.

“Circumcision did not import to any individual that any portion of the numerous seed of Abraham should descend through him. The covenant promised that all nations should be blessed in Abraham—that the Messiah should be his descendant. But circumcision was no sign to any other that the Messiah should descend from him,—even to Isaac and Jacob this promise was peculiarly given, and not implied in their circumcision. From some of Abraham’s race, the Messiah, according to the covenant, must descend, and circumcision was a sign of this: but this was not signed by circumcision to any one of all his race. Much less could circumcision ‘sign’ this to the strangers and slaves who were not of Abraham’s posterity. To such, even the temporal promises were not either ‘signed’ or sealed by circumcision. The covenant promised Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, but circumcision could be no sign of this to the strangers and slaves who enjoyed no inheritance in it” (Alexander Carson, 1860). That circumcision did not seal anything to anyone but to Abraham himself is established beyond shadow of doubt by the fact that circumcision was applied to those who had no personal interest in the covenant to which it was attached. Not only was circumcision administered by Abraham to the servants and slaves of his household, but in Genesis 17:23 we read that he circumcised Ishmael, who was expressly excluded from that covenant! There is no evading the force of that, and it is impossible to reconcile it with the views so widely pervading upon the Abrahamic covenant. Furthermore, circumcision was not submitted to voluntarily, nor given with reference to faith, it was compulsory, and that in every instance: “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:13)— those refusing, being “cut off from his people” (v. 14). How vastly different was that from Christian baptism!

-Pink, Arthur W. (2010-03-19). The Divine Covenants (Kindle Locations 2167-2186). . Kindle Edition.

The Old Covenant is coextensive with and collectively representative of theocratic Israel, defined by the Abrahamic, conditioned by the Mosaic, and focused by the Davidic Covenants. The Old Covenant, and thus each of these three covenants, differs from the New Covenant not merely in administration, but also in substance.

Nehemiah Coxe helps draw out the implications of this for circumcision:

Yet this restipulation [meaning counter-engagement or covenant response] (and consequently, the way and manner of obtaining covenant blessings, as well as the right by which we claim them) necessarily varies according to the different nature and terms of those covenants that God at any time makes with men. If the covenant be of works, the restipulation must be by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to its law. Suitably, the reward is of debt according to the terms of such a covenant. (Do not understand it of debt absolutely but of debt by compact [Coxe is referring to covenantal merit here].) But if it be a covenant of free and sovereign grace, the restipulation required is a humble receiving or hearty believing of those gratuitous promises on which the covenant is established. Accordingly, the reward or covenant blessing is immediately and eminently of grace.

-Nehemiah Coxe, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ p. 39

So, when we look at the Abrahamic Covenant, did Abraham only have to believe? Or were works required? Coxe elaborates:

We will now pass on to Genesis 17. What is more largely recorded there, is briefly pointed at by Stephen in his general view of the history of Israel (Acts 7:8), “and he gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham became the father of Isaac,” etc. By the covenant of circumcision we are to understand that covenant of which a restipulation was required by the observation of this rite or ordinance, as in Genesis 17:9-11.

It is noteworthy that in this transaction of God with Abraham we first meet with an express injunction of obedience to a command (and that of positive right) as the condition of covenant interest. It is all ushered in with this prologue (Genesis 17:1), “I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be perfect.” First in these words, the all-sufficiency of God is revealed for the ensuring of the promises. Then a strict and entire obedience to his precepts is required in order to inherit the good things that were to be given by this covenant. In this mode of transacting it, the Lord was pleased to draw the first lines of that form of covenant relationship in which the natural seed of Abraham was fully stated by the law of Moses, which was a covenant of works with its condition or terms, “Do this and live.” p. 91

At present it will suffice to remind you that there is no way of avoiding confusion and entanglements in our conception of these things except by keeping before our eyes the distinction between Abraham’s seed as either spiritual or carnal, and of the respective promises belonging to each. For this whole covenant of circumcision given to the carnal seed, can no more convey spiritual and eternal blessings to them as such, than it can now enright a believer (though a child of Abraham) in their temporal and typical blessings in the land of Canaan. Neither can I see any reason for assigning a covenant interest in all typified spiritual blessings (as well as in the temporal blessings that were the types of them) to the carnal seed, and yet not admit the same covenant to convey temporal blessings to the spiritual seed. I say this since some conceive both are directly included in the same covenant and the promise of both was sealed with the same seal.

But the truth is, despite the relationship this covenant has to the covenant of grace, it yet remains distinct from it. It can give no more than external and typical blessings to a typical seed. The proper end and design of this transaction in Genesis 17 is the stating of their rights and privileges in a subordinate and typical relation to the dispensation of grace to the elect in the new covenant…

This covenant of circumcision was the foundation on which the church-state of Israel after the flesh was built. I do not say that their church-state was exactly and completely formed by this ordinance alone. But I mean that in the covenant of circumcision were contained the first rudiments of the one in the wilderness, and the latter was the filling up and completing of the former. It was made with them in pursuance of it and for the full accomplishment of the promises now made to Abraham. And therefore the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham by virtue of the covenant of circumcision can rise no higher than the advantage and privilege of a Jew by virtue of the covenant in the wilderness.

To confirm this I will offer these things. First, circumcision was the entrance into and boundary of communion in the Jewish church. It was made so by the express command of God himself, who strictly enjoined that whoever broke the covenant by the neglect of circumcision should be cut off from his people (Gen 17:14). As it was to them a gate of privilege, so it was no less a bond of duty. It not only obliged them to obey the will of God so far as it was now made known to Abraham, but also, to the observation of all those laws and ordinances that were delivered later to them by Moses. For the circumcised person was a debtor to keep the whole law (Gal 5:3). This obligation resulted from its proper use and end in its primitive institution. For we do not read of its appointment to any new end by Moses, nor of any use it was assigned, de novo, which it did not have (at least virtually) from its first appointment. It was from first to last, a visible character on this people as separated to God from other nations, and as such they made their boast of it. Therefore it may be concluded to belong to that covenant from which all their rights and privileges as a people sprang. And where the sign was not varied, there was no essential variation or change in the covenant itself…

Moreover, it is notable that immediately after, in continuing his discourse in Romans 4, the apostle refers circumcision to the law in contradistinction from the gospel. For when he has told us that the circumcised Jew could not obtain the blessing of a spiritual relationship to Abraham by virtue of his circumcision, unless he walked in the steps 1 of Abraham’s faith which he had while uncircumcised, verse 12, he assigns this as the reason of it in the 13th verse. For the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. And I cannot see how the conclusion which the apostle makes concerning the inefficacy of circumcision is enforced by this reason, if circumcision immediately and in its own nature had not belonged to the law but to the righteousness of faith or covenant of grace, as an ordinary seal of it.

The interpretation made of this text is further strengthened by comparing other places in the New Testament where we find that circumcision is styled an unsupportable yoke (Acts 15:10) and is said to lay men under an obligation to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3). The complete dispensation of grace in the gospel according to the new covenant is constantly insisted on as that which renders it utterly useless to the gospel church and manifests the inconsistency of retaining its practice with the liberty of their present state. For instance, see the epistle to the Galatians 5:13. There the apostle tells them if he still preached circumcision, then the offence of the cross was ceased and he might have lived free from the persecutions he now suffered from the unbelieving Jews. It was the apostles preaching Christ, in which they asserted the shaking and removing of that old covenant to which circumcision belonged and by which the Jews held the right of their peculiar privileges that was the ground of the controversy between them and of their unreasonable opposition to him. For if the controversy had been about the mode of administering the same covenant, and the change only of an external rite by bringing baptism into the place of circumcision to serve for the same use and end now as that had done before, the heat of their contests might soon have been allayed. This is especially the case when we consider that the latter is far less painful and dangerous than the former. But he will certainly find himself engaged in a very difficult task who will seriously endeavor to reconcile the apostles’ discourses of circumcision with such a notion of it. Circumcision was an ordinance of the old covenant and pertained to the law and therefore directly bound its subjects to a legal obedience. But baptism is an ordinance of the gospel and (besides other excellent and most comfortable uses) directly obliges its subjects to gospel obedience. Therefore it is in this respect opposed to, rather than substituted in the place of, circumcision.

See also the Appendix to the 1689 London Baptist Confession dealing with circumcision.

Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.


Consider this in light of Meredith Kline’s observations

How Abraham’s obedience related to the securing of the kingdom blessings in their old covenant form is a special question within the broad topic of the role of human works under redemptive covenant…

But if the ground of Israel’s tenure in Canaan was their covenant obedience, their election to receive the typological kingdom in the first place was emphatically not based on any merit of theirs (cf. Deut 9:5, 6). Their original reception of this kingdom, as well as their restoration to it after the loss of their national election in Babylonian exile, is repeatedly attributed to God’s remembrance of his promissory commitments of grace to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 2:24;3:6ff.; 6:2ff.; 32:13; Deut 9:27; 10:15; Lev 26:42), pointing to the coming Messiah and the new covenant.

When, however, we trace the matter back to the record of God’s covenant revelation to the patriarchs we encounter statements that connect the promissory grant of the kingdom to the faithful service rendered to the Lord by Abraham…

Here the significance of Abraham’s works cannot be limited to their role in validation of his own faith. His faithful performance of his covenantal duty is here clearly declared to sustain a causal relationship to the blessing of Isaac and Israel. It had a meritorious character that procured a reward enjoyed by others…

Because of Abraham’s obedience redemptive history would take the shape of an Abrahamite kingdom of God from which salvation’s blessings would rise up and flow out to the nations. God was pleased to constitute Abraham’s exemplary works as the meritorious ground for granting to Israel after the flesh the distinctive role of being formed as the typological kingdom, the matrix from which Christ should come. Within this typological structure Abraham emerges as an appointed sign of his promised messianic seed, the Servant of the Lord, whose fulfillment of his covenantal mission was the meritorious ground of the inheritance of the antitypical, eschatological kingdom by the true, elect Israel of all nations. Certainly, Abraham’s works did not have that status. They were, however, accorded by God an analogous kind of value with respect to the typological stage represented by the old covenant. Though not the ground of the inheritance of heaven, Abraham’s obedience was the ground for Israel’s inheritance of Canaan. Salvation would not come because of Abraham’s obedience, but because of Abraham’s obedience salvation would come of the Abrahamites, the Jews (John 4:22)…

The obedient Abraham, the faithful covenant servant, was a type of the Servant of the Lord in his obedience, by which he became the surety of the new covenant.

(Kingdom Prologue)

Deuteronomy 6:25

And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’ (Deuteronomy 6:25 ESV)

Someone asked my thoughts on Deut 6:25 and I thought it would be worth sharing this brief response. Obedience to the letter is not a perspective shared by all who hold to 1689 Federalism (for example, Owen explicitly mentions disagreeing with it), but I think it is generally correct.

Keeping in mind the distinction between the law as covenant for national Israel for life in the land (which required outward conformity to the letter of the law) and the law as covenant for Adam and his offspring for eternal life (which required inward, perfect obedience to the spirit of the law), I believe Deut 6:25 in its immediate context refers to the former, though as the whole covenant order of Israel speaks typologically, it has reference ultimately to each individual’s inability to obtain true everlasting righteousness by the law.
Cf. Deut 6:25 with 1 Sam 11:13; Phil 3:6; Matt 19:16-22
John Erskine (1765, Scottish Presbyterian) notes:

He who yielded an external obedience to the law of Moses, was termed righteous, and had a claim in virtue of this his obedience to the land of Canaan, so that doing these things he lived by them (s). Hence, says Moses (t), “It shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all thefe commandments,” i. e. it shall be the cause and matter of our justification, it shall found our title to covenant blessings. But to Spiritual and heavenly blessings, we are entitled only by the obedience of the son of God, not by our own. The Israelites were put upon obedience as that which would found their claim to the blessings of the Sinai covenant. But they were never put upon seeking eternal life by a covenant of works. It is on this account, that the Mosaic precepts are termed, Heb. ix. 10, carnal ordinances, or, as it might be rendered, righteousnesses of the flesh, because by them men obtained a legal outward righteousness(s) Lev. xviii. 5. Deut. v. 33. (t) Deut. vi.25

…Deut 26:12-15

Would God have directed them, think you, to glory in their observance of that law, if, in fact, the sincerest among them had not obferved it. Yet doubtless that was the case, if its demands were the same as those of the law of nature. But indeed, the things mentioned in that form of glorying were only external performances, and one may see, with half an eye, many might truly boast they had done them all, who were strangers not with-standing to charity, flowing from a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned. Job, who probably reprefents the Jews after their return from the Babylonifh captivity, was perfect and upright {v). Zacharias and Elizabeth were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless(w). The young man, who came to Jesus, enquiring what he should do to inherit eternal life, professed that he had kept the commandments from his youth up, and our Lord does not charge him with falsehood in that profession (x). Paul was, touching the righteoufnefs which was of the law, blamelefs (y). Yet Job curses the day in which he was born (z) Zacharias is guilty of unbelief {a) ; the young man, in the gospel loves this world better than Christ (b) ; and Paul himself groans to be delivered from a body of sin and death (c), These seeming contradictions will vanish, if we take notice, that all of these though chargeable with manifold breaches of the law of nature, had kept the letter of the Mosaic law, and thus were entitled to the earthly happiness promised to its observers.

(v) Job i. i» xix. 20. (a) Luke i. ao. vii. 24. (w) Luke i. 6. (x) Matth. (y) Phil. iii. 6. (z) Job iii. i, 3. (Jb) Mat. xix, 22, 23. (c) Rom.

Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5

I recently had the pleasure of joining Pascal Denault to interview Guy Waters for the Confessing Baptist Podcast. We discussed his chapter in The Law is Not of Faith titled “Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works” which can also be found online here.

Waters’ goal is to demonstrate that in this crucial text, Paul is contrasting the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. Waters concludes “Defining ‘law’ at Romans 10:5 as the decrees and commandments of the moral law operating within the covenant of works explains otherwise knotty questions in the passage… It is when one sees that Paul is engaging the moral law’s precepts as they function within the covenant of works that he can understand that Paul affirms the whole Scripture to bear univocal witness to Jesus Christ and his “righteousness” for sinners.” His burden is to demonstrate the grievous error of those who deny the existence of a Covenant of Works: “Some within the Reformed churches are gravitating toward monocovenantalism (often not without grave consequences for their doctrine of justification). To those interested in engaging that position biblically, the bicovenantalism of Romans 10:4-8 surely ought to play a central role in that engagement. At stake is nothing less than the ‘word of faith which we preach’ (10:8).”

Paul’s concern for the law, as Romans 10:5 indicates, is the commandments and precepts of the moral law.What does this mean for a definition of the word telos? While it is a thoroughly Pauline teaching that Christ is the goal of the law, or the one to whom the law points (whether considered as a covenantal administration or as commandments and precepts), that is not what Paul is claiming here. He is claiming that Christ is the “termination” of the law to the believer. Paul, however, is not affirming that the believer is thereby altogether free from the commandments and precepts of the law. Paul is no antinomian. The law as precept continues to bind believers. He is, however, claiming that the believer is free from the law’s commandments as they bring life to the one who perfectly performs them and condemnation to the one who fails to meet this standard. He is, in other words, freed from the law as it functions within the covenant of works.

But arriving at this biblical conclusion faces a serious challenge: Paul quotes from the Mosaic Covenant to establish both principles (faith and works). This raises three problems:

1) How can Paul apply the Mosaic Covenant to Gentiles?

2) Is the Mosaic Covenant therefore the Covenant of Works?

3) How can Paul legitimately appeal to the same covenant for both principles (faith and works)?

Waters answers the first question by demonstrating that there is overlap between the Mosaic law and the moral law that binds Gentiles as well.

While Paul concerns himself with the commandments found within the Mosaic law, he does not concern himself with commandments that are found only within the Mosaic law. This is evident from a few considerations. First, Paul’s argument in 10:4-13 is universal in scope. Paul affirms at 10:4 that Christ is the “end of the law to everyone who believes.” The righteousness of justification is not restricted to Jews only… Second, if the solution is universal, it stands to reason that what has occasioned that solution (the “problem”) is universal as well… The problem that Paul identifies, then, is one to which Moses gives expression, but is not one that Paul limits or restricts to the Jews, the recipients of the Torah…Paul, however, has affirmed that it is to the “law” that the problem of Jews and Gentiles has reference… Romans 1:18-3:20… Romans 2:12-15… What can be said of this “law” which is thus available to all men and women? This “law” can certainly be distinguished from the Mosaic law in its totality, since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law. Nevertheless, because Paul uses the term “law” to describe this standard available to the Gentiles, neither may one separate it from the Mosaic law…

How could Paul have derived a testimony regarding the moral law, revealed to Jews and Gentiles, from Leviticus 18:5? The answer is found in the overlap that exists between the moral law and the Mosaic law. Because of this overlap Paul can quote the Mosaic writings, deducing therefrom a principle that applies universally to Jews and Gentiles alike.

In answering the first question, Waters answers the second (“since Gentiles are expressly said not to have the Mosaic law”). In Romans 10:5, Paul is specifically making a point about the law as the universal Adamic Covenant of Works even though he is using an element of the Jewish Mosaic Covenant. He is not identifying the Mosaic Covenant with the Adamic Covenant of Works – they are two different covenants. But this raises a new question:

4) What is the relationship between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Mosaic Covenant such that Paul can appeal to one to make a point about the other?

Answering this question requires Waters to answer question 3) first. Waters’ answer, as someone who holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, is that Paul can appeal to the Mosaic Covenant to establish the principle of faith because the Mosaic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. Old Testament saints were saved through the Mosaic administration of the Covenant of Grace, which is the same in substance as the New Covenant (salvation by grace alone through faith alone). They differ only in their outward appearance.

John Murray observes that “[The problem that arises from this use of Lev. 18:5 is that the latter text does not appear in a context that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith.] Lev. 18:5 is in a context in which the claims of God upon his redeemed and covenant people are being asserted and urged upon Israel… [It] refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.” If the Scripture teaches that the Mosaic administration is an administration of the covenant of grace, as the Westminster divines affirm (7.5), then how could Paul have interpreted Lev 18:5 as he has? How could he have taken a passage which, in context, appears to refer to the sanctificational works of a redeemed person within the covenant community, and apply this text to individuals seeking the righteousness of justification on the basis of their performance?… Has Paul misquoted Leviticus 18:5 at Romans 10:5?

Waters’ solution to this difficult question is that the moral law itself contains the works principle, and since both the Covenant of Works and the (Mosaic) Covenant of Grace contain the moral law, Paul can quote it from Moses to establish his point about Adam. In other words, in his quotation of Leviticus 18:5, Paul is “abstracting” the moral law from it’s context in the Covenant of Grace and thereby showing what the moral law by itself says.

Paul considers the moral demands of the law, in distinction from the gracious covenant in which they were formally promulgated, to set forth the standard of righteousness required by the covenant of works.* This is not to say that Paul believed that God placed Israel under a covenant of works at Mount Sinai. Nor is it to say that the apostle regarded the Mosaic covenant itself to have degenerated, by virtue of Israel’s unbelief and rebellion, into a covenant of works. Nor is it to say that Paul understood that God gave the Decalogue specifically or the Mosaic legal code generally as a covenant of works separate from a gracious Mosaic covenantal administration.

That Paul is here engaging the Mosaic Law as it articulates the standard of righteousness set forth by the covenant of works is a venerable interpretation. It is also one enshrined by the proof-texts of the Westminster Standards. The Assembly cited Rom 10:5 as proof for the following confessional declarations: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity…” (WCF 7.2); “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it” (WCF 19.1). Tellingly, the Assembly does not cite Rom 10:5 as proof for the covenant of works simpliciter. Rom 10:5 is proof, rather, for the moral law which lies at the heart of the covenant of works. The identification in view, then, is not between the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works as covenantal administrations. The identification is twofold. First, the moral law set forth in the covenant of works is substantially identical with the moral law set forth in the Mosaic Covenant. Second, the connection between “obedience” and “life” expressed by the moral law in the covenant of works is an abiding one. The moral law set forth in the Mosaic Covenant continues to express that connection.

If this historical proposal is tenable, then it goes a long distance towards resolving a number of exegetical and theological difficulties that have attended recent study of the apostle Paul. The question before us, then, is this – is this proposal exegetically tenable? In other words, is this what the apostle Paul is arguing at Rom 10:5?

*This position set forth in this chapter is essentially that argued by Anthony Burgess: “The law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousnesse, holding forth life upon no termes, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of grace; take it in the latter sense, as abstracted from Moses and his administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but workes”

So, is this proposal exegetically tenable? No, I do not believe it is. It contradicts a foundational aspect of the system of theology presented in the Westminster Confession. The Confession teaches a distinction between the moral law and the moral law as a covenant of works. 7.1 teaches that man has a natural obligation to obey God’s commands (the law). However, he cannot expect anything in return for that obedience. He is merely doing what is expected as a servant/slave (read the proof texts). This is expected of all image bearers (WCF 19.5). But God condescended to offer man a reward for that same obedience. This condescended reward, which was added to the moral law, was expressed by way of covenant. Adam was changed from a servant/slave to a wage earner (Rom 4:4) who could now earn a reward by his obedience. That reward was “life” – that is, eternal life without the possibility of sinning; an eternal sabbath rest. That is the covenant of works. That is the “works principle”: earning a reward by one’s works. WCF 19.1 says “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works…” (For more on this, see here and here.)

But because the works principle is something added to the moral law by covenant, the same moral law can be applied in a different way in a different covenant (the covenant of grace). Thus the Westminster Confession teaches that “This law, after [Adam’s] fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai…” (19.2). Though the Covenant of Works was broken, the moral law itself continued to lay forth the requirement for all image bearers (19.5). It “continued to be a perfect rule (guide) of righteousness” and that is how it was delivered on Mount Sinai – not as a covenant of works, but as a perfect rule of righteousness. As a result, “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly…” (19.6) which is not “contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do[es] sweetly comply with it” (19.7).

To summarize, the law says “Do this.” The covenant of works (works principle) says “Do this, and live!

As we just saw, the Westminster Confession views the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace and says the moral law functioned in the Mosaic Covenant as a perfect rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works. Waters’ argument is that Paul is quoting the moral law in the Mosaic Covenant and then abstracting it from it’s Mosaic context and applying it to the Adamic Covenant of Works to make a point about justification. But is Leviticus 18:5 simply the moral law (command)? No, it’s not.

You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:5 ESV)

From a simple grammatical standpoint, the first part of the verse is a command while the second part is a proposition commenting on that command.

Do this: You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules

and liveif a person does them, he shall live by them

From a theological standpoint, Lev. 18:5 is a statement of the law given as a covenant of works. It is not simply the moral law itself. Furthermore, Paul is only quoting the latter half of the verse – the works principle – not a command. Thus, according to Westminster’s system of theology concerning the law (which is shared by the LBCF and I believe is biblical), Paul must not be abstracting the moral law from its covenantal context but must be specifically appealing to its covenantal context. And because Leviticus 18:5 is not simply a command that can be applied in a covenant of works or a covenant of grace (“You shall not steal”), but is a statement of the works principle (“If you do not steal you will live” cf. Gal 3:12), the only conclusion we can come to is that the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant of works. And thus Westminster’s system of theology is self-contradictory.

And thus Paul is not misquoting Leviticus 18:5. He is correctly contrasting a covenant of works (righteousness based on the law) with the covenant of grace (righteousness based on faith). Which brings us to our final unanswered question 2) Is the Mosaic Covenant therefore the Covenant of Works? No, it is not. It is a covenant of works but it is not the Covenant of Works. The two covenants differ in their contracting parties and in their reward. The Adamic Covenant of Works was made with Adam as the federal head of all mankind. The Mosaic covenant of works was made with Abraham’s physical offspring. The Adamic Covenant of Works offered eternal life upon the doing of the law (perfectly). The Mosaic covenant of works offered temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan upon the doing of the law (outwardly). For more on this distinction, see here and here.

Finally, if Paul correctly appeals to Moses to establish the works principle, how can he also appeal to Moses to establish the faith principle? Well, quite simply, in the words of Scottish Presbyterian John Erskine (1765) “We must not imagine that everything in Moses’ writings relates to the Sinai covenant.” Paul’s appeal to the faith principle comes from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Another chapter in The Law is Not of Faith by Bryan Estelle titled “Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development” argues precisely what we have said thus far:

In a word, the life promised upon condition of performing the statues and judgments in its immediate context in Leviticus here [referring to Lev. 18:5] is “the covenantal blessing of abundant (and long) life in the land of Israel.” (Sprinkle)… There is a real connection that exists between the obedience/disobedience of Israel and tenure in the land… the biblical evidence is incontrovertible…

The Bible asserts and scholars have recognized that pollution and defilement of the land could build up and reach intolerable states, triggering the sanctions and leading to banishment. Not only exile is in view, but also ultimate extirpation symbolized in the destruction of the Herodian temple in AD 70 and the potential rejection of the chosen people.

Estelle then contrasts this with the solution to such a dire situation:

Leviticus 18:5’s influence on Ezekiel is of paramount importance. The purpose of these echoic allusions in Ezekiel is to show that what Israel has failed to do, God will do… Leviticus 18 allusions are seen throughout the entire book of Ezekiel and not merely restricted (as often) to chapter 20 of Ezekiel where three citations of Lev 18:5 have frequently been noted…

[In Ezekiel there is a] reversal of fortunes based on divine initiative… In short, there is a “composition connection between the unfulfilled ‘statutes and ordinances’ in chapters 18 and 20 with their fulfillment in 36.27 and 37.24; likewise, there is a connection with the ‘life’ unattained by Israel in chapters 18, 20, and 33 and Israel’s ‘life’ in 37.1-14″ (Sprinkle) Whereas Israel’s failure to fulfill the stipulations is highlighted repeatedly in Ezekiel 1-24, there is a dramatic reversal of this failure through divine initiative and fulfillment in Ezekiel 36-37… In short, divine causation replaces the conditions incumbent upon the people. What they are unable to perform in and of themselves, Yahweh will accomplish through his own divinely appointed agency.

Like Waters, Estelle recognizes that there is overlap between the Jewish Mosaic law and the universal moral law, and thus while Leviticus 18:5 in its immediate context refers to life in the land of Canaan, it alludes to the eternal life offered in the Adamic Covenant of Works, and thus the problem all mankind faces. Bringing all of this together, Estelle writes about Deuteronomy 30:1-14 (the section Paul quotes):

[T]his amazing passage anticipates ahead of time the plight of which the Israelite nation will find itself, destitute and unable to fulfill the stipulations of the covenant on its own. It also describes the new measure of obedience – accomplished by divine initiative – in which they will satisfy the conditions hanging over them. Finally, when Paul creatively brings these two significant passages (i.e., Lev 18:5 and Deut. 30) into closer proximity to one another (Rom 10:1-12), the mystery of the divine plan for fulfillment emerges from the shadows and into the light…

In Deut 10:16, the people are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and not stiffen their necks any longer. Verse 6 of Deut 30, however, is no mere allusion to that passage! On the contrary, new covenant language and imagery permeate this Deuteronomy passage because it is clear that divine initiative will supersede human impotence… Verse 8 declares that when God himself circumcises hearts, “you [fronted in the Hebrew] will repent and you will obey the voice of the LORD and you will do all his commandments.” This will happen with the coming of the Spirit in the gospel age…

Just as Leviticus 18:5 is taken up in later biblical allusions and echoes, so also is this Deuteronomy passage. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the language of the new covenant that was cloaked in the circumcision of heart metaphor is unveiled in this classic passage. I argued above that Deuteronomy 30:1-14 is a predictive prophecy of the new covenant, and, therefore, all that was implicit there becomes explicit in Jeremiah 31. In verse 31, Jeremiah says this will happen “in the coming days” and in verse 33 he says “after these days”; both refer to the new covenant, messianic days.

This new covenant, however, is going to be unlike the old covenant with respect to breaking. The old covenant was a breakable covenant, it was made obsolete… The reader is obliged to say that a works principle in the old covenant was operative in some sense because the text clearly states that it was a fracturable covenant, “not like the one they broke.” Here indeed was a covenant that was susceptible to fracture and breakable! They broke it at Sinai (Ex. 32), and they did it time and again until that old covenant had served its purposes. For the one who holds a high view of God directing history, there must be something going on here…

…the point is that the whole old covenant order will be annihilatedit will be wiped out, and it will go down in judgment as a modus operandi.  The new covenant is not like that: it is not subject to breaking because it is built upon God’s initiative to complete it and Christ’s satisfaction in his penalty-paying substitution and his probation keeping. His merit is the surety of the new covenant promises, and therefore it cannot fail. The old Sinaitic covenant by way of contrast is built upon a very fallible hope, and therefore is destined to fail since Israel individually and corporately could not fulfill its stipulations.

Thus Paul can quote Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to establish the faith principle of the Covenant of Grace in opposition to the works principle in the Mosaic and Adamic covenants of works because Deuteronomy 30 is a prophecy of the New Covenant, and the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace, by which all saints from all time, OT and NT, have been saved.

“The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.”
-Owen
I greatly appreciate Waters’ work in this essay and his other writings. He rightly understands the necessity of properly understanding the Covenant of Works if we are to properly understand the gospel, and he defends that as best he can. But he is crippled by a self-contradictory covenant theology. A more consistent covenant theology, 1689 Federalism, provides a more robust and biblical defense of “the word of faith which we preach.”

Berkhof on Jer. 31:31-34

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.

-Louis Berkhof. “Systematic Theology.” iBooks.

Throughout his systematic theology, Berkhof is very candid in his discussion of the covenant of grace. He admits many things that paedobaptists today would not admit – most likely because Berkhof did not have any reformed baptists to argue with. It wasn’t on his radar. Paedobaptists today insist that baptists have misread Jer. 31:31-34 and have ignored its context. Berkhof said our observation from the text is a “perfectly Scriptural idea.” However, he goes on to explain that the covenant of grace must be understood in another sense because of Genesis 17:7.

They [reformed theologians] 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.

Thus Jer. 31:31-34 does describe the substance of the covenant of grace made with the elect alone, but Genesis 17:7 says the Abrahamic Covenant is made with Abraham and his physical offspring. The paedobaptist conclusion is that there are two levels or sides or aspects to the covenant of grace: inward/outward, etc (see Berkhof “The Dual Aspect of the Covenant”). The biblical conclusion is that the Abrahamic Covenant is not the New Covenant.

I Will Be God to You

I know very little of T. David Gordon beyond his essays in “By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification” and “The Law is Not of Faith”. From these essays I gather that he is someone who speaks his mind, and perhaps bombastic (he carelessly compares John Murray to the drunk uncle no one wants to talk about). The main thrust of his essays is that Murray departed from the reformed tradition by not acknowledging great discontinuity between the Mosaic and New covenants. He makes several good points, but he tends not to realize that he is not arguing against Murray so much as the WCF tradition. I enjoyed his response to the oft-used argument that paedobaptists use: For God to say he will be God to someone necessarily implies a soteriological relationship.

Murray (and his followers) implicitly believe that the only relation God sustains to people is that of Redeemer (which, by my light, is not a relation but an office). I would argue, by contrast, that God was just as surely Israel’s God when He cursed the nation as when He blessed it. His pledge to be Israel’s God, via the terms of the Sinai administration, committed him to curse Israel for disobedience just as much as to bless her for obedience. In being Israel’s God, he sustained the relation of covenant suzerain to her; he did not bless or curse any other nation for its covenant fidelity or infidelity. In this sense, he was not the God of other nations as he was the God of Israel. (p 120 “By Faith Alone”)

Of course, such an admission undermines the paedobaptist claim that “I will be God to you and your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7) means “the promise of salvation is to your offspring.” Compare Gordon’s comments with Jonathan Edwards’.

Did Spurgeon hold to 1689 Federalism?

spurgeon1a2

Benjamin Keach pastored a fellowship at Horse-lie-down, Southwark for 36 years (1668-1704). He was succeeded by Benjamin Stinton from 1704-1718 (14 yrs), who was succeeded by Joh Gill from 1720-1771 (51 yrs). In 1833 the congregation moved to New Park Street where Spuregon began preaching in 1854 (20 years old).

Keach & Gill both held to 1689 Federalism. Which view of covenant theology did Spurgeon hold to?

It’s Important

 

First, note how important Spurgeon believes this issue is:

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.” — Hebrews 8:10.

THE doctrine of the divine covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and of grace. May God grant us now the power to instruct, and you the grace to receive instruction on this vital subject.

The human race in the order of history, so far as this world is concerned, first stood in subjection to God under the covenant of works. Adam was the representative man. A certain law was given him. If he kept it, he and all his posterity would be blessed as the result of obedience. If he broke it, he would incur the curse himself, and entail it on all represented by him. That covenant our first father broke. He fell; he failed to fulfil his obligations; in his fall he involved us all, for we were all in his loins, and he represented us before God. Our ruin, then, was complete before we were born; we were ruined by him who stood as our first representative. To be saved by the works of the law is impossible, far under that covenant we are already lost. If saved at all it must be all quite a different plan, not on the plan of doing and being rewarded for it, for that has been tried, and the representative man upon whom it was tried has failed for us all. We have all failed in his failure; it is hopeless, therefore, to expect to win divine favour by anything that we can do, or merit divine blessing by way of reward.

But divine mercy has interposed, and provided a plan of salvation from the fall. That plan is another covenant, a covenant made with Christ Jesus the Son of God, who is fitly called by the apostle, “the Second Adam,” because he stood again as the representative of man. Now, the second covenant, so far as Christ was concerned, was a covenant of works quite as much as the other. It was an this wise. Christ shall come into the world and perfectly obey the divine law. He shall also, inasmuch as the first Adam has broken the law, suffer the penalty of sin. If he shall do both of these, then all whom he represents shall be blessed in his blessedness, and saved because of his merit. You see, then, that until our Lord came into this world it was a covenant of works towards him. He had certain works to perform, upon condition of which certain blessings should be given to us. Our Lord has kept that covenant. His part in it has been fulfilled to the last letter. There is no commandment which he has not honoured; there is no penalty of the broken law which he has not endured. He became a servant and obedient, yea, obedient to death, even the death of the cross. He has thus done what the first Adam could not accomplish, and he has retrieved what the first Adam forfeited by his transgression. He has established the covenant, and now it ceases to be a covenant of works, for the works are all done. “Jesus did them, did them all, Long, long ago.”

And now what remaineth of the covenant? God on his part has solemnly pledged himself to give undeserved favour to as many as were represented in Christ Jesus. For as many as the Saviour died for, there is stored up a boundless mass of blessing which shall be given to them, not through their works, but as the sovereign gift of the grace of God, according to his covenant promise by which they shall be saved.

The Wondrous Covenant (Hebrews 8:10)

[H]ave a joyful respect for it [the covenant of grace]. Awake your harps and join in praise with David—“Although my house is not so with God, yet has He made with me an Everlasting Covenant.” Here is enough to make a Heaven in our hearts while yet we are below—the Lord has entered into a Covenant of Grace and peace with us and He will bless us forever! Then have a jealous respect for it. Never suffer the Covenant of Works to be mixed with it. Hate that preaching—I say not less than that—hate that preaching which does not discriminate between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, for it is deadly preaching and damning preaching!

The Covenant Pleaded (Psalm 74:20)

 

Remember that there was a Covenant of old, which men broke—the Covenant of works, “This do, and you shall live.” Keep such and such commands, and you shall be rewarded. That Covenant failed because man did not keep God’s commands and so did not earn the promised reward. We broke the terms of that contract and it is no longer valid, except that we come under penalty for the breach of it, and that penalty is that we are to be cast away from God’s Presence and to perish without hope, so far as that broken Covenant is concerned.

Now, rolling up that old Covenant as a useless thing out of which no salvation can ever come, God comes to us in another way and He says, “I will make a new Covenant with you, not like the old one at all.” It is a Covenant of Grace— a Covenant made, not with the worthy, but with the unworthy! A Covenant not made upon conditions, but unconditionally, every supposed condition having been fulfilled by our great Representative and Surety, the Lord Jesus Christ! A Covenant without an, “if,” or a, “but,” in it, “ordered in all things, and sure.” A Covenant of shalls and wills in which God says, “I will, and you shall!” A Covenant just suited to our broken-down and helpless condition. A Covenant which will land everyone who is interested in it in Heaven! No other Covenant will ever do this.

Twelve Covenant Mercies (Isaiah 55:3)

 

This renewing work has been in our Lord’s hands from of old. We were under the old covenant, and our first father and federal head, Adam, had broken that covenant, and we were ruined by his fatal breach. The substance of the old covenant was on this wise,—”If thou wilt keep my command thou shalt live, and thy posterity shall live; but if thou shalt eat of the tree which I have forbidden thee, dying, thou shalt die, and all thy posterity in thee.” This is where we were found, broken in pieces, sore wounded, and even slain by the tremendous fall which destroyed both our Paradise and ourselves. We died in Adam as to spiritual life, and our death revealed itself in an inward tendency to evil which reigned in our members. We were like Ezekiel’s deserted infant unswaddled and unwashed, left in our pollution to die; but the Son of God passed by and saw us in the greatness of our ruin. In his wondrous love our Lord Jesus put us under a new covenant, a covenant of which he became the second Adam, a covenant which ran on this wise,—”If thou shalt render perfect obedience and vindicate my justice, then those who are in thee shall not perish, but they shall live because thou livest.” Now, our Lord Jesus, our Surety and Covenant Head, has fulfilled his portion of the covenant engagement, and the compact stands as a bond of pure promise without condition or risk. Those who are participants in that covenant cannot invalidate it, for it never did depend upon them, but only upon him who was and is their federal head and representative before God. Of Jesus the demand was made and he met it. By him man’s side of the covenant was undertaken and fulfilled, and now no condition remains; it is solely made up of promises which are unconditional and sure to all the seed. To-day believers are not under the covenant of “If thou doest this thou shalt live,” but under that new covenant which says, “Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” It is not now “Do and live,” but “Live and do;” we think not of merit and reward, but of free grace producing holy practice as the result of gratitude. What law could not do, grace has accomplished.

Sermon for New Year’s-Day (Revelation 21:5)

Mosaic Covenant

 

Spurgeon clearly understood the importance of distinguishing between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. But did he follow Calvin and Westminster? Did he believe that all of the post-fall covenants were renewals of the same covenant? Did he believe the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace?

This Epistle to the Hebrews is full of distinctions between the old covenant and the new, the gist of it being to show that the former covenant was only typical of that abiding dispensation which followed it; for it had only the shadow, and not the very image of heavenly things.

The Blood of the Covenant (Hebrews 13:20-21)

 

“I will be their God.”—Jeremiah 31:33.

WHAT A glorious covenant the second covenant is! Well might it be called “a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.” Heb. viii. 6. It is so glorious that the very thought of it is enough to overwhelm the soul, when it discerns the amazing condescension and infinite love of God, in having framed a covenant for such unworthy creatures, for such glorious purposes, with such disinterested motives. It is better than the other covenant, the covenant of works, which was made with Adam; or that covenant which is said to have been made with Israel, on the day when they came out of Egypt. It is better, for it is founded upon a better principle. The old covenant was founded on the principle of merit; it was, “Serve God and thou shalt be rewarded for it; if thou walkest perfectly in the fear of the Lord, God will walk well towards thee, and all the blessings of Mount Gerizim shall come upon thee, and thou shalt be exceedingly blessed in this world, and the world which is to come.” But that covenant fell to the ground, because, although it was just that man should be rewarded for his good works, or punished for his evil ones, yet man being sure to sin, and since the fall infallibly tending towards iniquity, the covenant was not suitable for his happiness, nor could it promote his eternal welfare. But the new covenant, is not founded on works at all, it is a covenant of pure unmingled grace; you may read it from its first word to its last, and there is not a solitary syllable as to anything to be done by us.

God in the Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33)

 

The old covenant said, “There are the tables of stone, mind that you obey every word that is written thereon: if you do you shall live, and if you do not you shall die.” Man never did obey, and consequently no one ever entered heaven or found peace by the law. The new covenant speaketh on this wise, “Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. I will write my law in their hearts, and on their minds will I write them. I will put my fear in their hearts that they shall not depart from me.” The prophets enlarge most instructively upon this new covenant. It is not a covenant of “if you will I will,” but it runs thus, “I will and you shall.”

The Blood of the Covenant (Hebrews 13:20-21)

 

Christ is the messenger of the covenant, in the next place, as the messenger of the Father to us. Moses was messenger of the covenant of works, and his face shone, for the ministration of death was glorious; but Christ is the messenger of the covenant of grace.

The Messenger of the Covenant (Malachi 3:1)

 

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts.”—Hebrews 8:10.

WHEN God gave to Israel his law,—the law of the first covenant,—it was such a holy law that it ought to have been kept by the people. It was a just and righteous law, concerning which God said, “Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord.” The law of the ten commandments is strictly just; it is such a law as a man might make for himself if he studied his own best interests, and had wisdom enough to frame it aright. It is a perfect law, in which the interests of God and man are both studied; it is not a partial law, but impartial, complete, and covering all the circumstances of life. You could not take away one command out of the ten without spoiling both tables of the law, and you could not add another command without being guilty of making a superfluity. The law is holy, and just, and good; it is like the God who made it, it is a perfect law. Then, surely, it ought to have been kept. When men revolt against unjust laws, they are to be commended; but when a law is admitted to be perfect, then disobedience to it is an act of exceeding guilt.

Further, God not only gave a law which ought to have been kept, because of its own intrinsic excellence, but he also gave it in a very wonderful way, which ought to have ensured its observance by the people. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai in fire, and the mountain was altogether on a smoke, and the smoke thereof ascended “as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount Quaked greatly;” and the sight that was then seen on Sinai, and the sounds that were there heard, and all the pomp and awful grandeur were so terrible that even Moses,—that boldest, calmest, quietest of men said, “I do exceedingly fear and quake.” The children of Israel, as they heard that law proclaimed, were so amazed and overwhelmed with God’s display of his majesty and might, that they were ready enough to promise to keep his commandments. The law of God could not have Been made known to mankind in grander or more sublime style than was displayed in the giving of that covenant on Mount Sinai.

And, dear friends, after the giving of the law, did not God affix to it those terrible penalties which should have prevented men from disobeying his commands? “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” It was the capital sentence that was to be pronounced upon the disobedient; there could be no heavier punishment than that. God had, as it were, drawn his sword against sin; and if man had been a reasonable being, he ought at once to have started back from committing an act which he might be sure would make God his foe.

Moreover, the blessings that were appended to the keeping of the law ought to have induced men to keep it; look again at those words I quoted just now: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord.” This did not mean that the man who kept God’s law should merely exist; there are some in these degenerate days who seek to make out life to be existence, and death to be annihilation, but there is little likeness between the words, or between what those words mean. “He shall live in them,” said the Lord concerning the man who kept his law; and there is a fullness of blessedness couched in that word, “live.” If men had kept the covenant of the Lord,—if Adam, for instance, had kept it in the garden of Eden, the rose would have been without a thorn to tear his flesh, and the enjoyment of life would never have been marred by the bitterness of toil or grief.

But, alas! notwithstanding all these solemn sanctions of the ancient covenant, men did not keep it. The promise, “This do, and thou shalt live,” never produced any doing that was worthy to be rewarded with life; and the threatening, “Do this, and thou shalt die,” never kept any man back from daringly venturing into the wrong road which leadeth unto death. The fact is, that the covenant of works, if it be looked upon as a way of safety, is a total failure. No man ever persevered in it unto the end, and no man ever attained unto life by keeping it. Nor can we, now that we are fallen, ever hope to be better than our unfallen covenant-head, Adam; nor may we, who are already lost and condemned by our sinful works, dream for a moment that we shall be able to save ourselves by our works. You see, dear friends, the first covenant was in these terms,—”You do right, and God will reward you for it. If you deserve life, God will give it to you.” Now, as you all know right well, that covenant was broken all to pieces; it was unable to stand by reason of the weakness of our flesh and the corruptness of our nature. So God set aside that first covenant, he put it away as an outworn and useless thing; and he brought in a new covenant,—the covenant of grace; and in our text we see what is the tenor of it: “I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts.” This is one of the most glorious promises that ever fell from the lips of infinite love. God said not, “I will come again, as I came on Sinai, and thunder at them.” No, but, “I will come in gentleness and mercy, and find a way into their hearts.” He said not, “I will take two great tables of stone, and with my finger write out my law before their eyes.” No, but, “I will put my finger upon their hearts, and there will I write my law.” He said not, “I will give promises and threatenings that shall be the safeguard of this new covenant;” but, “I will with my Spirit graciously operate upon their minds and their hearts, and so I will sweetly influence them to serve me,—not for reward, nor from any servile motive, but because they know me, and they love me, and they feel it to be their delight to walk in the way of my commandments.” O dear sirs may you all be shares in the blessings of that new covenant! May God say this of you, and do this to you; and if so, we shall meet in the glory-land, to sing unto the grace of that eternal God who has wrought so wondrously with us, and in us, and for us!

God’s Law in Man’s Heart (Hebrews 8:10)

 

“He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second,” is illustrated… in the case of the covenants made with the literal and the spiritual Israel. There was a first covenant to which the Israelites gave their consent soon after they came out of Egypt. That was a covenant of works, and when Moses rehearsed in the ears of the people the terms of that covenant, “All the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” Yet they soon forgot their solemn promise. You remember how the commandments were “written with the finger of God” upon “two tables of testimony, tables of stone;” but when the people turned aside to worship the golden calf which Aaron had made, we read concerning Moses, “it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses anger ’waxed hot,’ and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” In God’s great longsuffering, the commandments were given a second time, though Moses, and not God, wrote on the second tables of stone, and they were put away for safety into the golden ark, above which was placed the mercy seat of pure gold. This was another symbolical illustration of our text: “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.” The law in the hand of Moses is broken that we may have the law in the heart of Christ hidden away under the sacred covering of divine mercy in the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. The first covenant of “This do, and thou shalt live,” is taken away, that God may establish the second, which is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” The first covenant, because it waxed old, has passed away; and now God has established a second covenant, the covenant of grace: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God: and I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: and I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall lot depart from me.’

The First and the Second (Hebrews 10:9)

 

First, we invite you to notice THE TWO WOMEN—Hagar and Sarah. It is said that they are the types of the two covenants; and before we start we must not forget to tell you what the covenants are. The first covenant for which Hagar stands, is the covenant of works, which is this: “There is my law, O man; if thou on thy side wilt engage to keep it, I on my side will engage that thou shalt live by keeping it. If thou wilt promise to obey my commands perfectly, wholly, fully, without a single flaw, I will carry thee to heaven. But mark me, if thou violatest one command, if thou dost rebel against a single ordinance, I will destroy thee for ever.” That is the Hagar covenant—the covenant propounded on Sinai, amidst tempests, fire and smokeor rather, propounded, first of all, in the garden of Eden, where God said to Adam, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” As long as he did not eat of the tree, but remained spotless and sinless, he was most assuredly to live. That is the covenant of the law, the Hagar covenant. The Sarah covenant is the covenant of grace, not made with God and man, but made with God and Christ Jesus, which covenant is this: “Christ Jesus on his part engages to bear the penalty of all his people’s sins, to die, to pay their debts, to take their iniquities upon his shoulders; and the Father promises on his part that all for whom the Son doth die shall most assuredly be saved; that seeing they have evil hearts, he will put his law in their hearts, that they shall not depart from it, and that seeing they have sins, he will pass them by and not remember them any more for ever.” The covenant of works was, “Do this and live, O man!” but the covenant of grace is, “Do this, O Christ, and thou shalt live, O man!” The difference of covenants rests here. The one was made with man, the other with Christ; the one was a conditional covenant, conditional on Adam’s standing, the other is a conditional covenant with Christ, but as perfectly unconditional with us.

The Allegories of Sarah and Hagar (Galatians 4:24)

 

While Spurgeon did clearly separate the Mosaic Covenant from the Covenant of Grace, he did not clearly separate the Mosaic Covenant of Works from the Adamic Covenant of Works. He did not follow John Owen and Nehemiah Coxe (among others) in limiting the Mosaic Covenant to temporal life in the land of Canaan. Nor did he make the careful qualifications that Keach made (that the Adamic Covenant of Works was revealed in the Covenant of Works with Israel, while being separate from it). Of course, these quotes are taken from sermons, not treatises or polemical tracts like the earlier Particular Baptists wrote, so we can’t expect the same level of nuance (and some did articulate it similarly to Spurgeon – see links).

The New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace

 

Spurgeon frequently preached on the New Covenant and identified it as the Covenant of Grace, the “Everlasting Covenant.”

This is the central truth of all Scripture, it is the basis of all Scripture. When Paul desires to set forth the covenant of grace, he appeals to this passage [Jer 31:27-37]. Twice, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, he bases an argument upon it, and after quoting it, adds, “Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us.” Brethren and sisters in Christ, under the first covenant we are ruined; there is no salvation for us but under this new covenant, wherefore let us read to our joy and comfort what the promises and provisions of that new covenant are.

Exposition of Jeremiah 31:27-37

 

The first Covenant was the Covenant of Works—”Do this and you shall live.” That Covenant, as I have shown you, was broken, but the new Covenant is a Covenant of pure Grace. Christ has fulfilled all its conditions on His people’s behalf and, therefore, all its privileges are theirs… Yet once more, let me remind you that the ensign of this Covenant is faith. Under the old Covenant it was and always would have been, works. But, under the new Covenant, it is faith. Do you believe? Then you are in Christ and all the blessings of the Covenant of Grace are yours.

Taking Hold of God’s Covenant (Isaiah 56:4, 6)

He followed both Keach and Gill’s minority view in that he did not separate or distinguish the Covenant of Redemption from the Covenant of Grace.

Now, in this covenant of grace, we must first of all observe the high contracting parties between whom it was made. The covenant of grace was made before the foundation of the world between God the Father, and God the Son; or to put it in a yet more scriptural light, it was made mutually between the three divine persons of the adorable Trinity. This covenant was not made mutually between God and man. Man did not at that time exist; but Christ stood in the covenant as man’s representative. In that sense we will allow that it was a covenant between God and man, but not a covenant between God and any man personally and individually. It was a covenant between God with Christ, and through Christ indirectly with all the blood-bought seed who were loved of Christ from the foundation of the world…

Thus, I say, run the covenant, in ones like these: “I, the Most High Jehovah, do hereby give unto my only begotten and well-beloved Son, a people, countless beyond the number of stars, who shall be by him washed from sin, by him preserved, and kept, and led, and by him, at last, presented before my throne, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. I covenant by oath, and swear by myself, because I can swear by no greater, that these whom I now give to Christ shall be for ever the objects of my eternal love. Them I will forgive through the merit of the blood. To these will I give a perfect righteousness; these will I adopt and make my sons and daughters, and these shall reign with me through Christ eternally.” Thus run that glorious side of the covenant. The Holy Spirit also, as one of the high contracting parties on this side of the covenant, gave his declaration, “I hereby covenant,” saith he, “that all whom the Father giveth to the Son, I will in due time quicken. I will show them their need of redemption; I will cut off from them all groundless hope, and destroy their refuges of lies. I will bring them to the blood of sprinkling; I will give them faith whereby this blood shall be applied to them, I will work in them every grace; I will keep their faith alive; I will cleanse them and drive out all depravity from them, and they shall be presented at last spotless and faultless.” This was the one side of the covenant, which is at this very day being fulfilled and scrupulously kept. As for the other side of the covenant this was the part of it, engaged and covenanted by Christ. He thus declared, and covenanted with his Father: “My Father, on my part I covenant that in the fullness of time I will become man. I will take upon myself the form and nature of the fallen race. I will live in their wretched world, and for my people I will keep the law perfectly. I will work out a spotless righteousness, which shall be acceptable to the demands of thy just and holy law. In due time I will bear the sins of all my people. Thou shalt exact their debts on me; the chastisement of their peace I will endure, and by my stripes they shall be healed. My Father, I covenant and promise that I will be obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. I will magnify thy law, and make it honourable. I will suffer all they ought to have suffered. I will endure the curse of thy law, and all the vials of thy wrath shall be emptied and spent upon my head. I will then rise again; I will ascend into heaven; I will intercede for them at thy right hand; and I will make myself responsible for every one of them, that not one of those whom thou hast given me shall ever be lost, but I will bring all my sheep of whom, by thy blood, thou hast constituted me the shepherd—I will bring every one safe to thee at last.” Thus ran the covenant; and now, I think, you have a clear idea of what it was and how it stands—the covenant between God and Christ, between God the Father and God the Spirit, and God the Son as the covenant head and representative of all Gods elect. I have told you, as briefly as I could what were the stipulations of it. You will please to remark, my dear friends, that the covenant is, on one side, perfectly fulfilled. God the Son has paid the debts of all the elect. He has, for us men and for our redemption, suffered the whole of wrath divine. Nothing remaineth now on this side of the question except that he shall continue to intercede, that he may safely bring all his redeemed to glory.

The Blood of the Everlasting Covenant (Hebrews 13:20)

 

The covenant—to come at once straight to the matter, however offensive the doctrine may be—the covenant has relationship to the elect and none besides. Does this offend you? Be ye offended ever more. What said Christ? “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me: for they are thine.” If Christ prayeth for none but for the chosen, why should ye be angry that ye are also taught from the Word of God that in the covenant there was provision made for the like persons, that they might receive eternal life. As many as shall believe, as many as shall trust in Christ, as many as shall persevere unto the end, as many as shall enter into the eternal rest, so many and no more are interested in the covenant of divine grace.

The Blood of the Everlasting Covenant (Hebrews 13:20)

 

Through His substitutionary Sacrifice, they were even then “accepted in the Beloved” and, in the fullness of time, they become Believers in Him and so enter consciously into the enjoyment of the Covenant privileges which had been conferred upon them from eternity! The Covenant is not made with them when they believe in Jesus—it was made on their behalf by the Father and the Son in the eternal council chamber long before the daystar knew its place or planets ran their round!

The Blood of Christ’s Covenant (Zechariah 9:11)

OT Saints Members of the New Covenant

 

In 1867, Spurgeon wrote against a new teaching called Dispensationalism in his Sword and Trowel publication.

An earnest study of those Scriptures which disclose “the everlasting covenant” as it was gradually but distinctly revealed, will do more than any arguments of ours to dissipate the mist of those strange doctrines we have referred to. That Covenant was declared to Noah; it was still further opened to Abraham and Isaac, it was confirmed to David; Isaiah rejoiced in its sure mercies, Jeremiah was privileged to relate many of its special provisions; and Paul avers in his epistle to the Hebrews that this is the Covenant under the provisions of which the precious blood of Christ was shed; it is the blood of the new Covenant… According to the terms of the everlasting Covenant, and not according to the law, nor yet according to the tenor of any transient dispensations, the Old Testament saints were justified and accepted of God.

There Be Some Who Trouble You (Sword and Trowel essay against Dispensationalism)

 

Further, the blood of Jesus is also the Seal of the Covenant Speaking after the manner of men, until the blood of Jesus had been shed, the Covenant was not signed, sealed and ratified. It was like a will that could only become valid by the death of the testator. It is true that there was such perfect unity of heart between the Father and the Son, and such mutual foreknowledge that the Covenant would be ratified in due time—that multitudes of the chosen ones were welcomed to Heaven in anticipation of the redemption which would actually be accomplished by Christ upon the Cross. But when Jesus took upon Himself the likeness of men and in our human nature suffered and died upon the accursed tree, He did, as it were, write His name in crimson characters upon the Eternal Covenant and thus sealed it with His blood. It is because the blood of Jesus is the Seal of this Covenant that it has such power to bless us and is the means of lifting us up out of the prison-pit wherein is no water.

The Blood of Christ’s Covenant (Zechariah 9:11)

What about the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Davidic Covenants?

 

ALL GOD’S dealings with men have had a covenant character. It hath so pleased Him to arrange it, that he will not deal with us except through a covenant, nor can we deal with Him except in the same manner. Adam in the garden was under a covenant with God and God was in covenant with Him. That covenant he speedily brake. There is a covenant still existing in all its terrible power—terrible I say, because it has been broken on man’s part, and therefore God will most surely fulfill its solemn threatenings and sanctions. That is the covenant of works. By this he dealt with Moses, and in this doth he deal with the whole race of men as represented in the first Adam. Afterwards when God would deal with Noah, it was by a covenant; and when in succeeding ages he dealt with Abraham, he was still pleased to bind himself to him by a covenant. That covenant he preserved and kept, and it was renewed continually to many of his seed. God dealt not even with David, the man after his own heart, except with a covenant. He made a covenant with his anointed and beloved; he dealeth with you and me this day still by covenant. When he shall come in all his terrors to condemn, he shall smite by covenant—namely, by the sword of the covenant of Sinai; and if he comes in the splendors of his grace to save, he still comes to us by covenant—namely, the covenant of Zion; the covenant which he has made with the Lord Jesus Christ, the head and representative of his people…

It is important, then, since the covenant is the only ladder which reaches from earth to heaven—since it is the only way in which God has intercourse with us, and by which we can deal with him, that we should know how to discriminate between covenant and covenant; and should not be in any darkness or error with regard to what is the covenant of grace, and what is not…

The Blood of the Everlasting Covenant (Hebrews 13:20)

This passage is somewhat vague. It could potentially be read as saying the the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Davidic covenants were renewals of the Covenant of Grace. If you re-read the paragraph, you will see that Spurgeon very clearly addresses each covenant on its own. He does not refer to them as the same covenant. The renewal he speaks of is the Abrahamic Covenant renewal to Issac, Jacob, etc. Separate from these covenants that God made with Noah, Abraham, and David, God also made a covenant with Jesus – the Covenant of Grace.

Spurgeon clarifies the Abrahamic Covenant as it relates to the Covenant of Grace:

“As for you, also, by the blood of your Covenant I have sent forth your prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water.” Zechariah 9:11.

THE LORD is here speaking to His ancient people, Israel. That nation had always been preserved, although other nations had been destroyed—and the reason was that God had entered into a Covenant with Abraham on their behalf. Circumcision was the sign and seal of the Covenant, so that God could truly speak of “the blood of your Covenant.” The Jews have never ceased to be a nation, though they have been scattered, peeled and delivered over into the hand of their adversaries because of their sins. They may enjoy various rights and privileges in the different countries where they sojourn for a while, but they cannot be absorbed into the nationalities by which they are surrounded. They must always be a separate and distinct people—but the day shall yet come when the branches of the olive tree, which have been so long cut off, shall be grafted in again. Then shall they, as a nation, again behold the Messiah, the true and only King of the Jews—and their fullness shall be the fullness of the Gentiles, also!

All Believers have some share in that Covenant made with Abraham, for he is the father of the faithful. We who believe in Jesus are of the seed of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but according to the promise, and we are pressed by a Covenant which like that made with Abraham, is signed and sealed with blood even “the blood of the Everlasting Covenant.” We, too, are saved and kept as a separate and distinct people, not because of any natural goodness in us, or because of our superiority over others, but solely and entirely because the Lord has made an Eternal Covenant concerning us, which is “ordered in all things and sure,” because Jesus Christ is, Himself, the Surety on our behalf that its guarantees and pledges shall all be carried into effect.

The Blood of Christ’s Covenant (Zechariah 9:11)

Here Spurgeon is articulating the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. Abraham had a two-fold seed with different promises made to each. Furthermore, he clearly distinguishes between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Everlasting Covenant of Grace (which was “like that made with Abraham”). The Abrahamic is signed and sealed by circumcision while the Covenant of Grace is signed and sealed by the blood of Christ.

As an instance of the expulsive power of a new delight, we all know how the memory of the old dispensation is gone from us. Brethren, did any one of you ever weep because you did not sit at the Passover? Did you ever regret the Paschal lamb? Oh, never, because you have fed on Christ! Was there ever man that knows his Lord that ever did lament that he had not the sign of the old Abrahamic covenant in his flesh? Nay, he gladly dispenses with the rites of the old covenant, since he has the fullness of their meaning in his Lord.

God Rejoicing in the New Creation (Isaiah 65:17-19)

 

Does the covenant say, “A new heart will I give thee, and a right spirit will I put within thee?” It must be done, for Jesus died, and Jesus’ death is the seal of the covenant… The blood is the symbol, the token, the earnest, the surety, the seal of the covenant of grace to thee… May God take away the enmity out of your heart to his own precious truth, and reconcile you to himself through THE BLOOD of his Son, which is the bond and seal of the everlasting covenant.

The Blood of the Everlasting Covenant (Hebrews 13:20)

Covenant theology is a very difficult subject of systematic theology and while Spurgeon did not write systematic treatises (thus we don’t have comments from him in detail on this) when he preached on covenant theology, it was consistent with (at least one strand of) 1689 Federalism, not modern baptist covenant theology.

Hebrews 10 & John 15

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I agree, and because I believe the exegetical basis for the paedobaptist inner/outer covenant membership model is lacking, I remain a credobaptist (see 1689 Federalism, alt link while it’s down: http://confessingbaptist.com/1689Federalism/).

Jared Oliphint recently offered a brief argument for paedobaptism at TGC. He offers two texts – Hebrews 10:26-30 and John 15:1-6 – as arguments to prove that New Covenant membership is not limited to the regenerate alone. These texts supposedly teach that there are people in the New Covenant who are not saved, and thus they teach the doctrine of inner/outer membership in the covenant of grace.

However, to be more precise, the actual argument is not that the paedobaptist inner/outer covenant is established from these texts, but rather that only the paedobaptist doctrine of covenant can explain these passages, in light of Calvinism.

The surface value reading of these texts suggest that one can lose their salvation and that Christ died for those who are not saved (see Why the Author of Hebrews Wouldn’t Have Been a Calvinist @ The Evangelical Arminian, for example). Because the Calvinist believes that Scripture elsewhere clearly teaches the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints as well as limited atonement, and the Calvinist is also committed to the analogy of faith (WCF/LBCF 1.9), which presupposes the non-contradictory nature of Scripture, the Calvinist must offer an alternative reading of the text.

The analogy of faith is “the use of a general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci…, as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts. As distinct from the more basic analogia Scripturae…, the analogia fidei presupposes a sense of the theological meaning of Scripture” (Muller, Dictionary, 33 – see also here).

Because the reformed paedobaptist believes that Christ “procured reconciliation” for “all those whom the father has given unto him” (WCF/LBCF 8.5) through an atonement applied to “the elect in all ages” (8.6) and that the “certainty and infallibility” of the perseverance of the saints is guaranteed by “the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace,” (WCF/LBCF 17.2) he must offer a different explanation of “sanctified” and “the covenant” in Hebrews 10:29. He therefore says “sanctified” does not refer to definitive sanctification, nor progressive sanctification, but simply a non-salvific “set apart” (referencing “holy” in 1 Cor 7:14), and “the covenant” refers to a “dual-sided” covenant that one can be in “outwardly” (which procures different blessings from being in the covenant “internally”). In other words, he applies a doctrine of covenant membership established from other texts to this text in order to avoid theological contradiction. And that is a completely legitimate and necessary aspect of proper biblical interpretation – but let’s not pretend such a doctrine is derived from the text.

Alternative Explanations of Hebrews 10:29

Not all paedobaptists believe that is the best way for a Calvinist to explain the verse. Reformed paedobaptists have been challenged in their interpretation by the Federal Vision (a false gospel), which claims to be reformed, yet denies perseverance of the saints and says that one may lose their covenantal union with Christ (arguing from Hebrews 10:29 and other texts). R. Fowler White participated in the Knox Colloquium on Auburn Avenue Theology (another name for Federal Vision) in which proponents and opponents met together to exchange views and critiques. White’s contribution was a paper titled “Covenant and Apostasy” in which he adopts a more baptistic view of the visible church & false profession of faith in order to deal with the apostasy passages. Baptists argue, with reference to 1 John 2:19, that apostates only appeared to be Christians (members of the new covenant), but their apostasy demonstrates that they never were. White says that “Peter does ascribe to apostates blessings that literally belong uniquely to the elect, and he does so on the basis of their confessed faith.”

In my view, it is precisely the nature of human knowledge and faith that we have to take into account when we interpret those assertions in which the biblical writers, conditionally and otherwise, attribute salvation ordained, accomplished, and/or applied to individuals. If we do so interpret their assertions, we find the necessary suppositions of their warnings include, not the (Arminian’s) inherent reversibility of faith, but the finite nature of human knowledge and the undifferentiated nature of faith initially confessed.

He states his commitment to the paedobaptist two-sided (inner/outer), dual-sanction New Covenant, but he says that is not the best way to explain Hebrews 10:29. “My contention is that we should take our cue from the rhetoric of rebuke and reproach elsewhere in the Bible and interpret the biblical writer’s attribution of sanctification in Heb 10:29 as an example of reproachful irony (sarcasm).”

19th century Scottish Presbyterian John Brown says

Interpreters have differed as to the reference of the clause, “by which he was sanctified,” – some referring it to Christ and others to the apostate. Those who refer it to Christ explain it in this way, – ‘By His own blood Jesus Christ was consecrated to His office as an intercessory Priest.’ Those who refer it to the apostate consider the Apostle as stating, that in some sense or other he had been sanctified by the blood of Christ.

I cannot say that I am satisfied with either of these modes of interpretation. I do not think that Scripture warrants us to say that any man who finally apostatizes is sanctified by the blood of Christ in any sense, except that the legal obstacles in the way of human salvation generally were removed by the atonement He made … I apprehend the word is used impersonally, and that its true meaning is, “by which there is sanctification.” It is just equivalent to—“the sanctifying blood of the covenant.”

An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews, p. 21

However, most baptists agree with yet another interpretation of the text offered by the mature John Owen. James White explains:

The exegesis that we have offered, together with the compelling argumentation (that reaches its climax in Heb. 10:10-18) regarding the perfection that flows from the singular, completed sacrifice of the New Covenant, provides a very strong ground on which to argue that the writer would hardly turn around and vitiate the central core of his apologetic argument within a matter of only a few sentences by robbing the New Covenant of its intrinsically perfect soteriological content. We would actually be in very good company to assert that the depth of the sin of apostasy here noted is magnified by recognition that the one who is sanctified by the blood treated as common or unclean (koino.n) by the apostate through returning to the sacrifice of goats and bulls is actually Christ, the very Son of God who has set himself apart as high priest as well as offering. Owen expressed it forcefully:

The last aggravation of this sin with respect unto the blood of Christ, is the nature, use, and efficacy of it; it is that “wherewith he was sanctified.” It is not real or internal sanctification that is here intended, but it is a separation and dedication unto God; in which sense the word is often used. And all the disputes concerning the total and final apostasy from the faith of them who have been really and internally sanctified, from this place, are altogether vain; though that may be said of a man, in aggravation of his sin, which he professeth concerning himself. But the difficulty of this text is, concerning whom these words are spoken: for they may be referred unto the person that is guilty of the sin insisted on; he counts the blood of the covenant, wherewith he himself was sanctified, an unholy thing. For as at the giving of the law, or the establishing of the covenant at Sinai, the people being sprinkled with the blood of the beasts that were offered in sacrifice, were sanctified, or dedicated unto God in a peculiar manner; so those who by baptism, and confession of faith in the church of Christ, were separated from all others, were peculiarly dedicated to God thereby. And therefore in this case apostates are said to “deny the Lord that bought them,” or vindicated them from their slavery unto the law by his word and truth for a season, 2 Peter 2:1. But the design of the apostle in the context leads plainly to another application of these words. It is Christ himself that is spoken of, who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto God, as I have showed before. The priests of old were dedicated and sanctified unto their office by another, and the sacrifices which he offered for them; they could not sanctify themselves: so were Aaron and his sons sanctified by Moses, antecedently unto their offering any sacrifice themselves. But no outward act of men or angels could unto this purpose pass on the Son of God. He was to be the priest himself, the sacrificer himself, — to dedicate, consecrate, and sanctify himself, by his own sacrifice, in concurrence with the actings of God the Father in his suffering. See John 17:19; Hebrews 2:10, 5:7, 9, 9:11, 12. That precious blood of Christ, wherein or whereby he was sanctified, and dedicated unto God as the eternal high priest of the church, this they esteemed “an unholy thing;” that is, such as would have no such effect as to consecrate him unto God and his office. (Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:545-46.)

White, The Newness of the New Covenant, in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage

Lane Keister, PCA, spent a year or more blogging back and forth with Doug Wilson and was called upon as an expert Federal Vision witness in Peter Leithart’s trial in the PCA. In a blog post on this passage, he says

A much more seriously tempting interpretation is that the person who is sanctified is Jesus Christ. The verse would then read as follows: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which that Son of God was sanctified (presumably as an offering).” This is John Owen’s interpretation. It has a great deal to recommend it… I would say that this interpretation is quite defensible.

The rest of the passage works out as follows:

v1-10 The repetitive sacrifices of the old covenant have been done away with by the establishment of Christ’s once for all sacrifice

v11-17 This one sacrifice has perfected for all time those who received the blessings of the new covenant.

v18 There remains no more sacrifices in the new covenant.

v19-25 Therefore draw near to God with full assurance, holding fast our confession of faith.

v26 For if we neglect this confession of faith and go on sinning willingly, there are no more repetitive sacrifices to repeatedly forgive your sin, like in the old covenant.

v27 Only judgement remains for adversaries.

v28 Reminding these Jews who felt secure in the Old Covenant of the punishments under the Old Covenant. Despite old covenant sacrifices, there were still some deliberate, high-handed sins that were punished without mercy (thus don’t test God’s mercy).

v29 How much worse will your punishment be if you despise the gospel.

v30 God was a fierce judge, even in the Old Covenant that you cling to. “Vengeance is mine” comes from Deut 32:35 and “The Lord will judge his people” from the next v36. Neither of these should be interpreted to mean the new covenant contains curses like the old covenant. They are simply establishing the fact, from the Old Covenant the Jews were clinging to, that God is a fierce judge. Owen: “In Deuteronomy it is applied unto such a judgment of them as tends unto their deliverance. But the general truth of the words is, that God is the supreme judge, “he is judge himself, ” Psalm 50:6. This the apostle makes use of, concluding that the righteousness of God, as the supreme judge of all, obligeth him unto this severe destruction of apostates: for “shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” This is precisely how Paul applies the same verse (to those outside of covenant) in Romans 12:19.

v31 Fear the living God (who is judge over all).

Nothing in this passage requires us to believe that apostates were once members of the New Covenant but have been cut off or that this judgment and punishment is a New Covenant curse. Quite the contrary, it is clearly referring to the final judgment. The apostates discussed here are specifically referred to as “adversaries” (v27) not as God’s covenant people.

John 15:1-6

Oliphint states “John 15:1–6 throws another kink into the “new covenant = salvation” formula… How can someone be in Christ yet fall away? Scripture reveals an important distinction and nuance between being in Christ/covenant salvifically, and being in Christ/covenant ecclesiologically.”

Notice again that the two-sided covenant of grace is not a doctrine derived from this text (where does the text mention this two-sided covenant?), but a doctrine applied to the text in order to explain it. It is a doctrine based upon the belief that the Old and New covenants are the same covenant – something not taught in this text. That understanding is then applied to passages like this.

John 15 is a central Federal Vision text. They follow Norm Shepherd in arguing that some who are united to Christ are cast into the fire for their disobedience/lack of covenant faithfulness. In responding to this view, reformed paedobaptist Andy Webb warns:

There is always a great danger of forgetting, however, that these statements are allegories and usually couched in parables, so in interpreting them we must ever keep his central point in view and not try to squeeze teachings out of the lesser details that Christ did not intend and which would contradict His teachings elsewhere.The great rule we must always apply is that scripture interprets scripture, and where a doctrine is uncertain in one portion of scripture, we should go to other areas where it that doctrine is more clearly taught on. Above all, we should strive not to atomistically interpret a verse so that it contradicts other clearer verses.

He even quotes the following from D.A. Carson:

But the latter view, that these dead branches are apostate Christians, must confront the strong evidence within John that true disciples are preserved to the end (e.g. notes on 6:37-40; 10:28). It is more satisfactory to recognize that asking the in me language to settle such disputes is to push the vine imagery too far. The transparent purpose of the verse is to insist that there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit. Fruitfulness is an infallible mark of true Christianity; the alternative is dead wood, and the exigencies of the vine metaphor make it necessary that such wood be connected to the vine.

[D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 1991, p.515]

So, according to Webb, using this metaphor to explain covenant union with Christ is to push the imagery too far and to violate the principle that clear passages interpret unclear passages.

So, if Jesus is not talking about the Presbyterian doctrine of a two-sided covenant of grace, what is he talking about?

A vineyard setting [speaking of Jesus physical location when delivering this teaching] would indeed be a highly suggestive environment for Jesus’ teaching, especially since “God’s vineyard” is a frequent OT designation for Israel*

*Although vine imagery is widespread in ancient literature, an OT background for the present passage is favored by the vast majority of commentators, primarily owing to the frequent OT references or allusions and the replacement motif in this Gospel (e.g., Carson 1991: 513; R. Brown 1970: 669-71; Morris 1995: 593; Ridderbos 1997: 515; contra Bultmann 1971: 530; Witherington 1995: 255-57).

In the famous “Song of the Vineyard” in Isa. 5, the prophet makes the point that God carefully cultivated his vineyard (Israel) and in due time expected to collect fruit from it, but Israel had yielded only bad fruit; hence, God would replace Israel with a more fruitful nation. *(This point is taken up by Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants Mark 12:1-12). Yet it is not the church that serves as Israel’s replacement (Beasley-Murray 1999: 272); rather, the true vine is Jesus, who is the new Israel (R. Brown 1970: 670) as well as the new temple and the fulfillment of Jewish festival symbolism (Carson 1991: 513). It is he who embodies God’s true intentions for Israel; Jesus is the paradigmatic vine, the channel through whom God’s blessings flow.

Theologically, John’s point is that Jesus displaces Israel as the focus of God’s plan of salvation, with the implication that faith in Jesus becomes the decisive characteristic for membership among God’s people (Whitacre 1999: 372). Whereas OT Israel was ethnically constrained, the new messianic community, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, is united by faith in Jesus the Messiah. Jews still have a place in God’s family, but they must come to God on his terms rather than their own (Kostenberger 1998b: 166-67). A paradigm shift has taken place: faith in Jesus has replaced keeping the law as the primary point of reference (Kostenberger 1999: 159-60)…

The OT frequently uses the vineyard or vine as a symbol for Israel, God’s covenant people, especially in two “vineyard songs” found in Isaiah. However, while the vine’s purpose of existence is the bearing of fruit for its owner, references to Israel as God’s vine regularly stress Israel’s failure to produce good fruit, issuing in divine judgment (Carson 1991: 513). In contrast to Israel’s failure, Jesus claims to be the “true vine,” bringing forth the fruit that Israel failed to produce. Thus Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, fulfills Israel’s destiny as the true vine of God (Ps. 80:14-17)…

“I am the true vine” (15:1; cf. Jer 2:21 LXX) is the alst of John’s seven “I am” sayings. “True” vine contrasts Jesus with OT Israel in its lack of fruitfulness and spiritual degeneracy (Morris 1995: 593; Ridderbos 1997: 515; Beasley-Murray 1999: 272; Moloney 1998: 419).

Andreas J. Köstenberger, John 448-50

So the key to this passage is typology. Jesus is the true Israel. God made a covenant of works with Israel for life and blessing in the land of Canaan. They disobeyed and God exiled them as punishment (Is. 5:1-7). But God also promised a future restoration of this vineyard, one that was exceedingly more glorious (Is. 27:1-13). It turns out this was a prophecy of Jesus, the true Israel, the true vine, the obedient one.

In the Old Testament the vine is a common symbol for Israel, the covenant people of God (Ps. 80:9-16; Is. 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Jer. 2:21; 12:10ff; Ezk. 15:1-8; 17:1-21; 19:10-14; Ho. 10:1-2). Most remarkable is the fact that whenever historic Israel is referred to under this figure it is the vine’s failure to produce good fruit that is emphasized, along with the corresponding threat of God’s judgment on the nation. Now, in contrast to such failure, Jesus claims, “I am the true vine’, i.e. the one to whom Israel pointed, the one that brings forth good fruit. Jesus has already, in principle, superseded the temple, the Jewish feasts, Moses, various holy sites; here he supersedes Israel as the very locus of the people of God. (A similar contrast between Israel and Jesus is developed in various ways in the Synoptics: e.g. in the temptation narrative, Mt. 4:1-11 par.)

Perhaps the most important Old Testament passage is Psalm 80, in that it brings together the themes of vine and son of man… The true (alethinos; cf. notes on 1:9) vine, then, is not the apostate people, but Jesus himself, and those who are incorporated in him. The theme would prove especially telling to diaspora Jews: if they wish to enjoy the status of being part of God’s chosen vine, they must be rightly related to Jesus.

[D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 1991, p.514-16]

How then are we to interpret the branches who are in Jesus but cut off and the branches that abide in Jesus and bear fruit?

First, E. Calvin Beisner very helpfully explains:

The Federal Visionists’ use of this passage implies that fruit-bearing branches could become nonfruit-bearing and thus be cut off and burned. However, according to the parable, every branch that bears fruit the Father “prunes, that it may bear more fruit,” while every branch that bears no fruit the Father “takes away” (v. 2)…

What does it mean for branches to abide in the vine (Christ)? Clearly it does not mean the same thing as to be a branch in the vine, for Christ explicitly distinguishes between branches in the vine that abide and branches in the vine that do not abide…

The best interpretive pointer we have in the immediate context is what Christ says in 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” The association between the apostles’ abiding in Christ and His words’ abiding in them implies that abiding in Christ means believing in Him–that is, believing the words of the gospel… Abiding in Christ is precisely having faith in Him.

How then are branches that do not have faith in Christ “in him”? Applying what we have noted above (that this is a metaphor that should not push the imagery too far, and it is dealing with typology) we can notice that Jesus is speaking to Jews – that is, he is speaking to Israel. He is telling the vine that He is the vine. He is telling Israel that He is Israel. If Israel wants to remain Israel, they must abide in Israel. If the vine wants to remain the vine, it must abide in the true vine. If they do not, there is a final covenant judgment coming upon the vine, not just an exile, and all who do not abide in the obedient one will be thrown in the fire for their disobedience. Combining Kostenberger and Carson above “A paradigm shift has taken place: faith in Jesus has replaced keeping the law as the primary point of reference… if they wish to enjoy the status of being part of God’s chosen vine, they must be rightly related to Jesus.”

Kostenberger notes “The reference in 15:6 to branches that do not remain in the vine being picked up and thrown into the fire and burned closely resembles the thought of Ezek. 15:1-8, where the prophet likewise warned that a vine failing to produce a fruit would be good for nothing but a fire.” Ezekiel is warning Israel of the temporal curses that will fall upon them and their holy land for their violation of the Old Covenant (which was confined to temporal things). “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!” (Ezk. 14:21) “And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezk 15:8)

Reformed paedobaptist (OPC) Bryan Estelle explains how Ezekiel’s prosecution of Israel proceeds upon their violation of the covenant of works God gave them.

In a word, the life promised upon condition of performing the statues and judgments in its immediate context in Leviticus here [referring to Lev. 18:5] is “the covenantal blessing of abundant (and long) life in the land of Israel.” (Sprinkle)… There is a real connection that exists between the obedience/disobedience of Israel and tenure in the land… the biblical evidence is incontrovertible…

The Bible asserts and scholars have recognized that pollution and defilement of the land could build up and reach intolerable states, triggering the sanctions and leading to banishment. Not only exile is in view, but also ultimate extirpation symbolized in the destruction of the Herodian temple in AD 70 and the potential rejection of the chosen people…

Leviticus 18:5’s influence on Ezekiel is of paramount importance. The purpose of these echoic allusions in Ezekiel is to show that what Israel has failed to do, God will do… Leviticus 18 allusions are seen throughout the entire book of Ezekiel and not merely restricted (as often) to chapter 20 of Ezekiel where three citations of Lev 18:5 have frequently been noted.

Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development

Now recall what was mentioned above. Isaiah 5:1-7 describes Israel as a failed vineyard being sent into exile, but God also promised a future restoration of this vineyard, one that was exceedingly more glorious (Is. 27:1-13). Estelle brings out the full meaning of this prophecy.

[In Ezekiel there is a] reversal of fortunes based on divine initiative… In short, there is a “composition connection between the unfulfilled ‘statutes and ordinances’ in chapters 18 and 20 with their fulfillment in 36.27 and 37.24; likewise, there is a connection with the ‘life’ unattained by Israel in chapters 18, 20, and 33 and Israel’s ‘life’ in 37.1-14” (Sprinkle) Whereas Israel’s failure to fulfill the stipulations is highlighted repeatedly in Ezekiel 1-24, there is a dramatic reversal of this failure through divine initiative and fulfillment in Ezekiel 36-37… In short, divine causation replaces the conditions incumbent upon the people. What they are unable to perform in and of themselves, Yahweh will accomplish through his own divinely appointed agency.

However, this prophecy is not isolated to Ezekiel or Isaiah. It is found from the very beginning of Israel. Estelle explains the full meaning of Deuteronomy 30:1-14.

[T]his amazing passage anticipates ahead of time the plight of which the Israelite nation will find itself, destitute and unable to fulfill the stipulations of the covenant on its own. It also describes the new measure of obedience – accomplished by divine initiative – in which they will satisfy the conditions hanging over them. Finally, when Paul creatively brings these two significant passages (i.e., Lev 18:5 and Deut. 30) into closer proximity to one another (Rom 10:1-12), the mystery of the divine plan for fulfillment emerges from the shadows and into the light…

In Deut 10:16, the people are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and not stiffen their necks any longer. Verse 6 of Deut 30, however, is no mere allusion to that passage! On the contrary, new covenant language and imagery permeate this Deuteronomy passage because it is clear that divine initiative will supersede human impotence… Verse 8 declares that when God himself circumcises hearts, “you [fronted in the Hebrew] will repent and you will obey the voice of the LORD and you will do all his commandments.” This will happen with the coming of the Spirit in the gospel age…

Just as Leviticus 18:5 is taken up in later biblical allusions and echoes, so also is this Deuteronomy passage. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the language of the new covenant that was cloaked in the circumcision of heart metaphor is unveiled in this classic passage. I argued above that Deuteronomy 30:1-14 is a predictive prophecy of the new covenant, and, therefore, all that was implicit there becomes explicit in Jeremiah 31. In verse 31, Jeremiah says this will happen “in the coming days” and in verse 33 he says “after these days”; both refer to the new covenant, messianic days.

This new covenant, however, is going to be unlike the old covenant with respect to breaking. The old covenant was a breakable covenant, it was made obsolete… The reader is obliged to say that a works principle in the old covenant was operative in some sense because the text clearly states that it was a fracturable covenant, “not like the one they broke.” Here indeed was a covenant that was susceptible to fracture and breakable! They broke it at Sinai (Ex. 32), and they did it time and again until that old covenant had served its purposes. For the one who holds a high view of God directing history, there must be something going on here…

the point is that the whole old covenant order will be annihilated, it will be wiped out, and it will go down in judgment as a modus operandi.  The new covenant is not like that: it is not subject to breaking because it is built upon God’s initiative to complete it and Christ’s satisfaction in his penalty-paying substitution and his probation keeping. His merit is the surety of the new covenant promises, and therefore it cannot fail. The old Sinaitic covenant by way of contrast is built upon a very fallible hope, and therefore is destined to fail since Israel individually and corporately could not fulfill its stipulations.

This was Jesus’ point in his teaching on the vine. The Old Covenant was broken and its curses were soon to be poured out upon Israel. In this judgment, the dead branches of Israel would be cut off and thrown in the fire. However, there was a true vine who alone obeyed, and those Israelites who believe in Him would be blessed as faithful, fruit-bearing Israel.

John Owen helpfully explained this transition process for the Jews.

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…

they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.

That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares…

It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also. And this cast the Jews into great perplexities, and proved the last trial that God made of them; for whereas both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only, those who had only the carnal privilege, of being children of Abraham according to the flesh, contended for a share on that single account in the other also, — that is, in all the promises annexed unto the covenant. But the foundation of their plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only.

The Oneness of the Church

Far from throwing a kink in the “new covenant = salvation” formula, John 15:1-6 beautifully illustrates it.

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]… I beg of you, however, carefully to observe, as far as you can, what I am endeavouring to prove with so much effort. When the prophet promised a new covenant, not according to the covenant which had been formerly made with the people of Israel when liberated from Egypt, he said nothing about a change in the sacrifices or any sacred ordinances, although such change, too, was without doubt to follow, as we see in fact that it did follow, even as the same prophetic scripture testifies in many other passages; but he simply called attention to this difference, that God would impress His laws on the mind of those who belonged to this covenant, and would write them in their hearts, (Jer 31:32-33)… These pertain to the new testament [covenant], are the children of promise, and are regenerated by God the Father and a free mother. Of this kind were all the righteous men of old, and Moses himself, the minister of the old testament, the heir of the new,—because of the faith whereby we live, of one and the same they lived, believing the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ as future, which we believe as already accomplished.

See also: