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John Ball on Salvation Prior to Christ’s Death

March 28, 2019 7 comments

My previous post was a response to an ongoing conversation with Michael Beck of the Two-Age Sojourner Podcast. He responded in the comments (give them a read). He was struggling to understand why I/we retain the language of “Covenant of Grace” if we mean something so different from reformed theology by it. My response was that we do not mean something so different from reformed theology by it. We affirm what reformed theologians teach about the “internal” Covenant of Grace: that all men since the fall are saved through covenant union with Christ, their federal head. We disagree with what they teach about the “external” Covenant of Grace.

Internal and External Covenant of Grace

John Ball died in 1640, but his “Treatise of the Covenant of Grace” (published in 1645) had a significant influence on the Westminster Confession’s formulation. He explained

Externally this Covenant is made with every member of the Church, even with the Parents and their children, so many as heare and embrace the Promises of Salvation, and give and dedicate their children unto God according unto his direction: for the Sacraments what are they but seals of the Covenant? But savingly, effectually, and in speciall manner it is made only with them, who are partakers of the benefits promised. And as the Covenant is made outwardly or effectually, so some are the people of God externally, others internally and in truth. For they are the people of God, with whom God hath contracted a Covenant, and who in like manner have sworne to the words of the Covenant, God stipulating, and the people receiving the condition: which is done two wayes: for either the Covenant is made extrinsecally, God by some sensible token gathering the people, and the people embracing the condition in the same manner, and so an externall consociation of God and the people is made: or the Covenant is entered after an invisible manner, by the intervention of the Spirit, and that with so great efficacy, that the condition of the Covenant is received after an invisible manner, and so an internall consociation of God and the people is made up. (24)

See also Berkhof’s survey of The Dual Aspect of the Covenant. We affirm what Ball says about the Covenant of Grace entered after an invisible manner. We deny what he says about being in the Covenant of Grace externally, as we believe it is based on a misunderstanding of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants (and thus Rom 9:6). So we continue to use the language of the Covenant of Grace because we agree with the heart of it.

The Covenant of Grace Promised & Established

Beck also raised questions over our claim that Abraham was saved by the New Covenant. John Ball has a helpful discussion of the same question: How were men saved prior to Christ’s death?

The Covenant of Grace is either promised or promulgated and established. Promised to the Fathers, first to Adam, and afterwards to the Patriarchs, and lastly to the people of Israel, and before their coming into the land of Canaan, and after their returne from the Babylonish captivity. Promulgated, after the fulnesse of time came. And hence the Covenant of Grace is distributed into the Covenant of Promise, or the New Covenant, so called by way of excellency. For the Foundation and Mediatour of the Covenant of Grace is our Lord Jesus Christ, but either to be incarnate, crucified, and raised from the dead, or as already incarnate, crucified, and raised from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. For there was never sin forgiven but in him alone, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Therefore although before the Incarnation, Christ was only God, he was our Mediatour, yet not simply as God, but as the divine person, who should take our flesh, and in it should finish all the Mysterie of our Redemption, and therefore he is called the Lambe of God slaine from the beginning of the world, and the Father by his grace were saved, even as we. In the acts of Mediation three things may be considered.
[1.] Reconciliation, by which we are accepted of God.
[2.] Patronage, by which we have accesse unto the Father.
[3.] Doctrine, whereby God hath made himselfe knowne unto men by a Mediatour.
This third act might be done before he assumed our flesh, and indeed was done: but the two first did require his coming in the flesh, although the fruit of them was communicated to the Fathers under the Old Testament, by force of the divine Promise, and certainty of the thing to come with God.

(27-28)

(Compare the language used by Ball here with WCF/2LBCF 8.6, and note Ball’s quotation of Heb 13:8 and its reference in 8.6.)

If it be objected that the cause is before the effect, and therefore the incarnation and death of Christ must goe before the communication of the fruit and benefit thereof unto the Fathers.

The answer is, That in naturall causes [i.e. physics] the Proposition holds true, but in morall causes the effect may be before the cause: and so the fruit and vertue of Christ’s death was communicated to the Fathers before his Incarnation. But although the Sonne of God before he was manifested in the flesh, was our Mediatour with God (to whom future things are present) because he should be, and therefore for his sake sinnes were remitted, men did teach and learne by his Spirit, the Church was governed by him: yet the manner and reason of that Mediation was proposed more obscurely, the force and efficacy of it was lesse, and did redound to fewer.

The Covenant of Promise then was that Covenant which God made with Adam, the Fathers and all Israel in Jesus Christ to be incarnate, crucified and raised from the dead: And it may be described the Covenant, whereby God of his meere grace and mercy in Jesus Christ to be exhibited in the fulnesse of time, did promise forgivenesse of sinnes, spirituall adoption and eternall life, unto man in himselfe considered a most wretched and miserable sinner, if he should embrace and accept this mercy promised, and walke before God in sincere obedience. God the Father of his meere and free grace and mercy looking upon man in Jesus Christ, in whom he is reconciled, is the Author and cause of this Covenant (Deut 9:5; Gal 3:18; Luk 1:54, 55). He hath holpen his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, as he spake to our Fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, your Fathers dwelt on the other side of the floud in old time, even Terah the Father of Abraham, and the Father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your Father Abraham from the other side of the floud, and led him throughout all the Land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac. (Josh 24:2)

(28-29)

We agree with Ball that the Covenant of Grace can be considered as either promised or established. Prior to its establishment in the death of Christ, Christ was Mediator of it as the one who would become incarnate. After its establishment, Christ was the Mediator of it as already incarnate. Prior to his death, Christ could mediate (“communicate”) salvation to the elect because the promise that he would come to earth and die for them was “certain” and because God operates outside of time.

We disagree with Ball that the Old Covenant is the same thing as the Covenant of Grace prior to Christ’s death. The Covenant of Grace is the New Covenant, and thus we may consider the New Covenant as promised or established. In either consideration it is distinct from the Old Covenant.

And if the Covenant of Promise, and the New Covenant doe thus agree in substance, then it must necessarily follow, That there is but one Church of the Elect, the same Communion of Saints, one Faith, one Salvation, and one way of obtaining the same, viz. by Faith in Christ. (30)

We agree. However, the Covenant of Promise is not the Old Covenant, it is simply the New Covenant promised.

Secondly, that the Word of God was no lesse incorruptible seed to the Fathers and the Israelites then to us: That the Fathers did eat the true flesh of Christ by faith, as well as we in the times of the Gospell: That they and we are partakers of the same Spirit: and that the Sacraments of the Jewes did signifie and seale to them, the same promises of eternal life, which our Sacraments doe to us. The Sacraments of the Old Testament were not types of our Sacraments, as sometimes they are called by Divines: but they typified the same things that ours doe. For as the Covenants under which they and we lived, were one for substance: so are the Sacraments one in their common nature and signification. (30)

We disagree. The Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenant ordinances were not the same as New Covenant ordinances. They did not serve the same purpose or function. They were not covenant signs of the same thing because the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants were not “one for substance” with the New Covenant. Old Covenant ordinances (and the entire Old Covenant itself) typified numerous aspects of the New Covenant as they functioned as types. But as they functioned as covenant signs and ordinances, they had an earthly, temporal function in keeping with the earthly, temporal Old Covenant (blessing and curse in the land of Canaan). See the previous post for more on this (and await a future post for an elaboration on the function of sacrifices in this regard).

Then what were the signs of the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace promised? Recall what Owen says about the meaning of “established” in Heb 8:6.

This is the meaning of the word “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, 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. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration. (Exposition of Hebrews 8:6)

The first solemn promulgation of this new covenant, so made, ratified, and established, was on the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Christ. And it answered the promulgation of the law on mount Sinai, the same space of time after the delivery of the people out of Egypt. From this day forward the ordinances of worship, and all the institutions of the new covenant, became obligatory unto all believers. (Exposition Hebrews 8:10)

The signs of the Covenant of Grace are not necessary for salvation. They are not means of saving grace. The elect prior to Christ could be, and were, saved without them. All they needed to be saved was a proclamation of the gospel responded to in faith.