I stated last week that this would be the last in a series of seven articles on the subject of infant baptism. I truly had every intention of writing only one more. There are a few factors that have hindered me in my efforts to reach that goal. Two are very practical. First, if an article is too long, most won’t read it. They may not read it anyway. That’s the thing about discussions involving doctrine. If you are struggling with a particular doctrinal issue, then good content and even mediocre writing is enough keep you engaged.
The flip side is that if you don’t have a good reason to care about a particular subject at that moment in time, then having to read about it can have some pretty adverse consequences. It is like watching home videos of someone else’s two-year old. You are exceptionally happy for the parents and grandparents but that does not equate with a desire on your part to sit and watch hours of little Johnny’s new YouTube channel.
The second practical reason I am not wrapping up the series is that if an article takes too long to knock out in one sitting then I won’t write it. In this particular case I was optimistic that I could summarize John Murray’s The Covenant of Grace and apply it to the current discussion all in one sitting. I was wrong. This is due in part to the rich contribution he makes in this little booklet.
I have seldom seen Murray’s particular perspective referenced and applied explicitly in contemporary discussions regarding covenant baptism. As stated many times before, covenant is the more fundamental issue in the debate among Reformed Baptists and paedobaptists. Fortunately, conversing at this level seems to be more prevalent these days. I believe Reformed Baptists are returning to a place of wrestling with covenant theology. It is adding to the efficiency of the debate.
I will quote Murray extensively in an attempt to use as many of his own words as possible. My hope is to briefly discuss this important notion of the conditional and unconditional nature of God’s Covenant of Grace.
At the beginning of his essay, Murray addresses the definition of a covenant. He sets the reader up for what will be a deviation from more commonly held definitions.
Theology must always be undergoing reformation. The human understanding is imperfect. However architectonic may be the systematic constructions of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar. It appears to me that the covenant theology, notwithstanding the finesse of analysis with which it was worked out and the grandeur of its articulated systematization, needs recasting. We would not presume to claim that we shall be so successful in this task that the reconstruction will displace and supersede the work of the classic covenant theologians. But with their help we may be able to contribute a little towards a more biblically articulated and formulated construction of the covenant concept and of its application to our faith, love and hope.[i]
At this point Murray reviews some commonly held definitions. He points out that all of them have been deeply influenced by the understanding of a covenant as a compact or agreement between two parties. He shows how Ursinus, Turretin, Witsius and others emphasized this concept and in some ways even took it for granted. Although they also emphasized God’s grace and promise, he wonders “whether the notion of mutual compact or agreement or convention provides the proper point of departure for our construction of the covenant of grace”[ii].
Rather than solving this question clearly from the outset, he gently and gradually uncovers the answer. Following a brief categorization of covenants between men, covenants made by man with God, and divine covenants, he highlights the Noahic covenant. Murray believes this to be the shining star that illuminates our understanding of what defines a covenant.
The Noahic Covenants
“We may consider, first of all, that instance which, perhaps more than any other in Scripture, assists us in discovering what the essence of covenant is, namely, the post-diluvian Noahic covenant (Gn. ix. 9-17).[iii]
Why is this particular covenant the leading exemplar in all of scripture?
- It is “conceived, devised, determined, established, confirmed, and dispensed by God Himself”.[iv]
- It is universal in scope – with Noah, his seed and every living creature. “It affects for good even those who do not have any intelligent understanding of its meaning.”[v]
- It is an unconditional covenant. The promise is unconditional.
- It is “intensely and pervasively monergistic”[vi]. God alone has control over the conditions and there is “rigid exclusion of human cooperation”[vii].
- It is an everlasting Covenant. It is perpetual until the end of time.
But what about the pre-diluvian covenant? In contrast with the points above, the covenant with Noah prior to the flood contains conditions. “In this case Noah was commanded to do certain things and the doing of these things on the part of Noah was the indispensable condition of the fulfillment of the grace provided for in the covenant.”[viii]
Murray does not want us to let this confuse us. The presence of conditions still does not support the essence of a covenant being a compact or agreement. Why not? Because,
The commandments are added in such a way that they are just as sovereign and unilateral in prescription or dispensation as is the annunciation of the covenant itself. The appended requirements are simply extensions, applications, expressions of the grace intimated in the covenant. The directions are as sovereign as the annunciation of the covenant and they flow naturally from it so that there is no deflection from the idea of sovereign dispensation. We may think of Noah as co-operating with God in carrying out the provisions of the covenant but the co-operation is quite foreign to that of pact or convention. It is the co-operation of response which the grace of the covenant constrains and demands.[ix]
Murray’s emphasis is on God’s creation and initiation. He is the ultimate, divine authority. Through grace, he enacts and dispenses the covenant relationship. That conditions would be in some way present does not mean the essence becomes one of mutual compact. They merely flow out of the substance of the sovereignly administered bond.
The Abrahamic Covenant: Conditional or Unconditional?
God’s covenant with Abraham is where we have concentrated much of our attention in the previous articles. It is central to any discussion regarding the Covenant of Grace.
Murray explains that the essence of the Abrahamic Covenant is in line with the characteristics noted above. It is unconditionally established. It is a covenant of “divine administration, divine in its origin, establishment, confirmation and fulfillment”.[x] It contains a promised blessing, and one that is richer than that of the Noahic covenant.
The essence of the blessing is that God will be the God of Abraham and of his seed, the characteristic promise of the Old Testament, ‘I will be your God, and ye shall be my people’. In a word, this consists in union and communion with the Lord.[xi]
Unlike the Noahic covenant, which was made with all men, this covenant is with a special people. In the relationship, “grace is intensified and expanded rather than diminished and the greater the grace the more accentuated becomes the sovereignty of its administration”[xii].
Yet, there are conditions present. There is direct reference to “keeping” and “breaking” the covenant in Genesis 17. Murray notes that this feature speaks to an enhanced relationship between God and his people.
[T]he necessity of keeping is complementary to the added richness, intimacy, and spirituality of the covenant itself. The spirituality of the Abrahamic covenant in contrast with the Noahic consists in the fact that the Abrahamic is concerned with religious relationship on the highest level, union and communion with God.[xiii]
Conditions add to the “richness, intimacy, and spirituality” of the covenant. This is no way intrudes upon the unconditional constitution of the relationship between God and his people.
The necessity of keeping the covenant on the part of men does not interfere with the divine monergism of dispensation.[xiv]
In other words, God solely, solemnly, and sovereignly initiated or established this covenant promise with his chosen people. The presence of conditions on the part of men does not abrogate this fact. Murray again drives home that such an understanding of covenant is not consistent with the traditional notion of a compact or agreement. He then anticipates a question. It is a good and seemingly logical question.
For does not the possibility of breaking the covenant imply conditional perpetuity? ‘The uncircumcised male…shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant’ (Gn. xvii. 14, R.V.).[xv]
In other words, if the covenant can be broken, does that not connote a conditional covenant? This is the point at which John Murray becomes extremely helpful. The fog begins to lift on a concept of covenant that may have come across unclear from the beginning.
Without question the blessing of the covenant and the relation which the covenant entails cannot be enjoyed or maintained apart from the fulfillment of certain conditions on the part of the beneficiaries…Fellowship is always mutual and when mutuality ceases fellowship ceases.[xvi]
The fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham and his children is contingent upon his and their obedience. The “obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished”[xvii]. They must obey the voice of the Lord and keep his covenant.
However, Murray points out that any discussion of such contingency should not be spoken of as “conditions of the covenant”. He says to do so may lead us to the point of implying that “the covenant is not to be regarded as dispensed until the conditions are fulfilled and that conditions are integral to the establishment of the covenant relation”[xviii]. This would upend the notion of a unilateral and unconditional establishment of God’s relationship to his people. God sovereignly bestows and administers his grace through establishing this relationship. This “does not wait for the fulfillment of certain conditions on the part of those to whom the grace is dispensed”[xix].
Murray asks another good question. “How then are we to construe the conditions of which we have spoken?”[xx] If we cannot speak of conditions related to establishing the covenant relationship, then how do we properly discuss them? How do we converse about them without diminishing the essence of the relationship to that of a compact or agreement? Simple. We separate conditions of establishment and administration from the conditions of fellowship or communion.
God’s grace is bestowed unilaterally according to his good pleasure. Conditions are spoken of only in regards to continued fellowship.
The continued enjoyment of this grace and of the relation established is contingent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions. For apart from the fulfillment of these conditions the grace bestowed and the relation established are meaningless. Grace bestowed implies a subject and reception on the part of that subject. The relation established implies mutuality. But the conditions in view are not really conditions of bestowal. They are simply the reciprocal responses of faith, love and obedience, apart from which the enjoyment of the covenant blessing and of the covenant relation is inconceivable. In a word, keeping the covenant presupposes the covenant relation as established rather than the condition upon which its establishment is contingent.[xxi]
He sums it up succinctly just a few sentences later.
By breaking the covenant what is broken is not the condition of bestowal but the condition of consummated fruition.[xxii]
This begins to get at the heart of our broader discussion regarding infant baptism. The crux lies in Murray’s statement above: “The grace dispensed and the relation established do not wait for the fulfillment of certain conditions on the part of those to whom the grace is dispensed”. The Abrahamic covenant was indeed an administration of the Covenant of Grace. God sovereignly administered the covenant to Abraham and his children – neither of which did anything to receive such a dispensation of grace. God marks them out. He sets them apart. He declares that they are his people.
So far what has been discussed falls far short of demonstrating continuity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. It does though, begin to lay some important groundwork.
John Murray points out flaws with the more traditional “mutual agreement” covenant model. He settles in with the notion of a divine covenant as “a sovereign administration of grace and promise”[xxiii]. This does not exclude the presence of conditions. Although there are no conditions required for bestowal, there are conditions of continued fellowship.
Such an understanding is expressed clearly in the pre-flood and post-flood covenants with Noah. In God’s redemptive plan, we also see continuity as we arrive at God’s covenant with Abraham. Here, grace is “intensified and expanded rather than diminished”. As we track through the scriptures we will see the apex of this intensification in the New Covenant. The question is, do we see continuity continue as God’s redemptive plan unfolds? Is what is discussed above also true of the Mosaic, Davidic and New Covenants?
Murray goes on to describe this continuity. We will look at this next and then find that the climax of our discussion revolves around a familiar passage in Hebrews chapter 10. Stay tuned.
[i] John Murray, The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: Reissued by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1988), 5.
[ii] Ibid, 8.
[iii] Ibid, 12.
[v] Ibid, 13.
[viii] Ibid, 15.
[ix] Ibid, 16.
[x] Ibid, 17.
[xii] Ibid, 18.
[xiv] Ibid, 18.
[xvii] Ibid, 19.
[xxiii] Ibid, 31.