The last two articles in this series of seven on baptism will close out with some thoughts from Charles Hodge and John Murray. Doing so will provide additional perspective on the Covenant of Grace with the support of two important Presbyterian (and Princeton) theologians. These men both held to and defended Reformed theology as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
In our present discussion it is important to note a tension that exists within the Westminster Standards. We see in some places an emphasis on the Covenant of Grace being made with only the elect, yet the confession is clear that the visible church is comprised of believers and their children. The Reformed Baptist relieves this tension by removing the latter notion. Perhaps a general emphasis on the decretal aspects of salvation and election during that time fostered this tension.
Regardless of the reasons for the tension, The Covenant of Redemption helps to relieve some of it. It is central to reformed theology and refers to the covenant relationship of the Trinity. It is an agreement within the three persons of the Godhead in which God the Father appoints God the Son to save his elect from all eternity. Hodge says of the Covenant of Redemption,
By this is meant the covenant between the Father and the Son in reference to the salvation of man. This is a subject which, from its nature, is entirely beyond our comprehension. We must receive the teachings of the Scriptures in relation to it without presuming to penetrate the mystery which naturally belongs to it.[i]
In other words, it is mysterious but it is scriptural.
The Father may send the Son, may give Him a work to do, and promise Him a recompense. All this is indeed incomprehensible to us, but being clearly taught in Scripture, it must enter into the Christian’s faith.[ii]
It is in fact a covenant.
When one person assigns a stipulated work to another person with the promise of a reward upon the condition of the performance of that work, there is a covenant. Nothing can be plainer than that all this is true in relation to the Father and the Son. The Father gave the Son a work to do ; He sent Him into the world to perform it, and promised Him a great reward when the work was accomplished . Such is the constant representation of the Scriptures. We have, therefore, the contracting parties, the promise, and the condition. These are the essential elements of a covenant.[iii]
One of the works Christ was to perform was to atone for the sins of the elect.
He was to bear our sins, to be a curse for us, offering Himself as a sacrifice, or propitiation to God in expiation of the sins of men. This involved his whole life of humiliation, sorrow, and suffering, and his ignominious death upon the cross under the hiding of his Father’s countenance.[iv]
Hodge notes eight promises the Father makes to the Son for performing this work. The sixth is that His atoning sacrifice would not be ineffectual for his people. God promised,
That all given to Him by the Father should come to Him, and be kept by Him, so that none of them should be lost.[v]
Following this passage, Hodge immediately enters into a discussion on the Covenant of Grace. This is important to our interaction with our Reformed Baptist brethren. They contend that the Covenant of Grace is made only with the elect in time and space. In doing so, they begin to blur the Covenant of Redemption and Covenant of Grace. Listen to Hodge as he begins to make a distinction.
[I]t follows, secondly, from the nature of the covenant between the Father and the Son, that the covenant of grace has also special reference to the elect. To them God has promised to give his Spirit in order that they may believe; and to them alone all the promises made to believers belong. Those who ignore the distinction between the covenants of redemption and of grace, merging the latter in the former, of course represent the parties to the covenant to be God and Christ as the head and representative of his own people. And therefore mankind, as such, are in no sense parties. All that is important is, that we should adopt such a mode of representation as will comprehend the various facts recognized in the Scriptures. It is one of those facts that salvation is offered to all men on the condition of faith in Christ. And therefore to that extent, or, in a sense which accounts for that fact, the covenant of grace is made with all men. The great sin of those who hear the gospel is that they refuse to accept of that covenant, and therefore place themselves without its pale.[vi]
The Covenant of Grace has “special reference to the elect”. To the elect alone belong “all the promises made to believers”. Those that ignore the distinction between the covenants exclude mankind as a party in a covenant. God and Christ are the only parties that covenant. The elect play a part only in that they are represented by their Head who is Christ. This leaves out the possibility of covenants with God in history in which man is a party.
The Baptists, especially those of the time of the Reformation, do not hold the common doctrine on this subject. The Anabaptists not only spoke in very disparaging terms of the old economy and of the state of the Jews under that dispensation, but it was necessary to their peculiar system, that they should deny that the covenant made with Abraham included the covenant of grace. Baptists hold that infants cannot be church members, and that the sign of such membership cannot properly be administered to any who have not knowledge and faith. But it cannot be denied that infants were included in the covenant made with Abraham, and that they received circumcision, its appointed seal and sign. It is therefore essential to their theory that the Abrahamic covenant should be regarded as a merely national covenant entirely distinct from the covenant of grace. [vii]
Hodge says that beyond just the Covenant of Redemption, there is a covenant made with mankind. They are a party in the agreement. The condition is faith in Christ. He believes this to be the Covenant of Grace, which is not only manifested in the covenant made with Abraham mentioned above. He sees the covenant in history over three different dispensations. The first was from Adam to Abraham beginning in the garden.
Although the covenant of grace has always been the same, the dispensations of that covenant have changed. The first dispensation extended from Adam to Abraham.[viii]
The second dispensation was from Abraham to Moses. This progressively revealed and “made more definite” God’s plan of redemption.
This was distinguished from the former, (1.) By the selection of the descendants of Abraham to be the peculiar people of God. They were chosen in order to preserve the knowledge of the true religion in the midst of the general apostasy of mankind. To this end special revelations were made to them, and God entered into a covenant with them, promising that He would be their God , and that they should be his people. (2.) Besides thus gathering his Church out of the world, and making its members a peculiar people, distinguished by circumcision from the Gentiles around them, the promise of redemption was made more definite. The Redeemer was to be of the seed of Abraham. He was to be one person. The salvation He was to effect should pertain to all nations. (3.) Subsequently it was made known that the Deliverer was to be of the tribe of Judah.[ix]
The third dispensation was from Moses to Christ. This again further revealed God’s plan of redemption.
All that belonged to the previous periods was taken up and included in this. A multitude of new ordinances of polity, worship, and religion were enjoined. A priesthood and a complicated system of sacrifices were introduced. The promises were rendered more definite, setting forth more clearly by the instructions of the prophets the person and work of the coming Redeemer as the prophet, priest, and king of his people. The nature of the redemption He was to effect and the nature of the kingdom He was to establish were thus more and more clearly revealed. We have the direct authority of the New Testament for believing that the covenant of grace, or plan of salvation, thus underlay the whole of the institutions of the Mosaic period, and that their principal design was to teach through types and symbols what is now taught in explicit terms in the gospel. Moses, we are told (Heb. 3: 5), was faithful as a servant to testify concerning the things which were to be spoken after.[x]
This brings us to the last era, which Hodge calls the gospel dispensation.
The gospel dispensation is called new in reference to the Mosaic economy, which was old, and about to vanish away.[xi]
Just as Hodge says about the previous dispensations, this one is yet “a different mode of revealing the same covenant”[xii]. Yet, it is distinct in that it is the last of the historical dispensations of the Covenant of Grace.
The old dispensation was temporary and preparatory ; the new is permanent and final. In sending forth his disciples to preach the gospel, and in promising them the gift of the Spirit, He assured them that He would be with them in that work unto the end of the world. This dispensation is, therefore, the last before the restoration of all things; the last, that is, designed for the conversion of men and the ingathering of the elect.[xiii]
This brings us full circle. The elect who are redeemed as a result of the Covenant of Redemption are not visible to us. The dispensations of the Covenant of Grace are visible. This last dispensation is “designed for the conversion of men and the ingathering of the elect”. The Reformed Baptist would argue that it is a New Covenant only with the elect. What we see though is that the different administrations of the Covenant of Grace serve a function. They are integral in actually carrying out God’s plan of redemption and the “restoration of all things”.
God relates to all mankind through covenant. He relates in a special way to “His people”, marked out in time and space. His people are set apart through covenant boundaries. There are historical, confessional boundaries in the Covenant of Grace. These boundaries will one day be perfect and final when the Bridegroom comes to carry his spotless bride over the threshold into eternity.
[i] Hodge, Charles (2015-02-13). Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 18481-18483). GLH Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ibid, 18486-18488.
[iv] Ibid, 18523-18525.
[v] ibid, 18534-18535
[vi] Ibid, 18553-18560
[vii] Ibid, 18614-18620
[viii] Ibid, 18740-18741
[ix] Ibid, 18753-18757
[x] Ibid, 18758-18765
[xi] Ibid, 18785-18786
[xii] Ibid, 18783
[xiii] Ibid, 18800-18803