I mentioned in the first article that The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology is the product of valuable labor and a very relevant contribution to the contemporary discussion regarding infant baptism. In it, Denault interacts with a number of original sources from seventeenth-century theologians on both sides of the debate. As a Baptist, he deals with the fundamental issues and demonstrates how early Reformed Baptist theologians took issue with the Presbyterian formulation of the Covenant of Grace.
Presbyterians hold to one Covenant of Grace under two administrations, the Old and New Covenants. The Reformed Baptist sees the Covenant of Grace initiated in the form of a promise under the Old Covenant, but not one that is fully established until the New Covenant. Thus, the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace.
BAPTIST UNDERSTANDING OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE
For the Baptist, there is no established Covenant of Grace in Old Testament (Covenant) history. It only appeared in the form of a promise.
Before the arrival of the New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace was at the stage of promise…The Baptists believed that the New Covenant was the accomplishment of the promise.[i]
In accomplishing the promise, the New Covenant, or Covenant of Grace, was established. Who was this covenant established with? God’s elect.
Baptist theology subscribed fully to the notion of their being only one Covenant of Grace in the Bible, which brings together all who are saved as one people. The Confession of 1689 clearly teaches this doctrine.[ii]
This is in contrast to the Old Covenant that included children. If I had a child in Israel, they would be de facto members of God’s covenant people. Not so with the church.
The Baptists did not deny the principle of natural posterity under the Old Covenant. However, they considered the importation of this principle under the New Covenant to be a fallacy dependent on an artificial and arbitrary construction of the Covenant of Grace.[iii]
What was this artificial and arbitrary construction?
The paedobaptists believed that Christians and their posterity were in the Covenant of Grace (internal and external), each of these levels having its own entryway; one natural way and one spiritual way. The Baptists believed that only the regenerated elect were in the covenant because they only saw one level to the Covenant of Grace into which one entered through faith alone.[iv]
The paedobaptist saw continuity in covenant structure between the Old and New Testaments.
Thus, all paedobaptists considered that the children of believers had God as their God, at least in an external fashion, under the administration of the Covenant of Grace.[v]
In contrast to the Baptist view of the Covenant of Grace being established with the New Covenant, the paedobaptist saw it initiated in history in Genesis 3:15 directly following the fall. It was established before time, but initiated in time and came to fullness with the New Covenant.
This is seen clearly in the proof texts for the answer to Question 20 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
God, having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer. (WSC)
WSC proof texts: Gen. 3:15 (initiated in history), Genesis 17:7 (everlasting covenant established with Abraham), Jer. 31:31-34 (New Covenant contrasts are made with the Old Covenant, not the Abrahamic covenant), Heb. 9:15 (the New Covenant did fulfill the promise made through the covenant with Abraham).
Unlike the Baptist, the paedobaptist does not see the Covenant of Grace in the New Testament as made only with the elect. Due to the continuity of structure, membership remains a “mixed people”.
According to them, this covenant included a physical reality, external and earthly, combined with a spiritual reality, internal and celestial, exactly as in their understanding of the Covenant of Grace wherein there was an internal substance and an external administration…but they refused to separate them into two distinct covenants.[vi]
The Baptists saw two posterities in Abraham, two inheritances and consequently two covenants.[vii]
The two posterities Denault refers to above are the physical posterity and the spiritual posterity. This comes from a key text in Scripture.
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:22-26 ESV)
From this passage, Denault pushes back on the paedobaptist understanding of the Covenant of Grace.
…the paedobaptists refused to see two posterities, because, according to them, Abraham had only one posterity made up of the mixed people of the Covenant of Grace. This point was crucial, because if Abraham had two distinct posterities, the Baptists were right to not mix the natural (unregenerate) posterity and the spiritual (regenerate) posterity of Abraham.[viii]
But in a very real sense, you could say that the paedobaptists do not refuse to see two posterities in the way Baptists do. You could say there is one confessional posterity with two administrations (two distinct covenants) and one that is heavenly – God’s elect. Abraham had one posterity made up of God’s Old Covenant people, and lived under the terms of the Mosaic Covenant administration until the time of Christ when they professed faith in Him and were bound together in the New Covenant. These were two earthly covenant manifestations of one truly elect, not fully discerned, Israel of God.
You could also say that paedobaptists acknowledge two posterities in a way different than the Baptists. Paul was speaking to those in a New Covenant church who were tempted by old practices that could not and were never intended to bring salvation. The practices only pointed to the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the mediator of a New Covenant. Interestingly, he was speaking to a mixed community when he said, “she is our mother”. This is why you could say that God’s old covenant people and New Covenant people were both two different posterities.
Either way, Paul’s point was to drive home their status as God’s New Covenant people who had been freed from these old practices through the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. This was the substance of the promise made to Abraham. The promised seed was Christ who was to come and free Abraham’s true heirs – those who profess faith in history and ultimately those who are found to have true faith and enter into eternity with Christ.
With all of this talk of posterities, Old Covenant, New Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, and the Covenant of Grace, perhaps a discussion of the word ekklésia will allay some confusion.
Ekklésia is the Greek word for “assembly”, “congregation” or more precisely, “the called out assembly”. It is the same word that is translated as “church” in the New Testament. Yet, it was not in any way a new concept at that time. The same word was used throughout the Septuagint for the Hebrew word “qahal” which also means “congregation” or “assembly”. In both the Old and New Testaments, these words were used to identify the called-out assembly or congregation of God’s people. We see “qahal” first used when speaking to Abraham’s “believing” offspring, Jacob (Gen. 28:3, Heb. 11:21).
Throughout Scripture, there is only one called-out assembly. In the New Testament, we see that Gentiles were grafted into an existing congregation. They took part in the same promises given to Israel. Ultimately, Gentile believers, grafted into a remnant of Israel, all united under one confession in Christ, would constitute the church – or Ekklésia in the New Testament.
In his book, Denault supports this understanding. He uses Edward Hutchinson’s quote of John Owen to make it clear.
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. The Christian Church is not another Church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same Covenant.[ix]
BACK TO THE TWO POSTERITIES THING
The descendants of Abraham comprise the “ekklésia”. Yet, there are in fact two covenants that govern this assembly in history. One is old and is now obsolete. It pointed to the New Covenant. This congregation throughout history is “called-out” in time and space. In both Old and New Testaments (Covenants) there is a separation between the assembly and those not in the assembly. There are confessional boundaries. The assembly is governed so as to preserve these boundaries, thereby preserving the called-out status. From a paedobaptist perspective, these boundaries are set and maintained through two covenant administrations in history – one pointing to and making way for the second.
A covenant is a mutual agreement that defines a legal relationship. The agreement is sealed with an oath and has five main components. It 1) appoints the ultimate authority in the relationship, 2) establishes a hierarchy to extend said authority, 3) sets terms, conditions or laws, 4) designates the sanctions or consequences for keeping or breaking said laws and 5) includes provision for how the covenant relationship extends over time (inheritance).
It is important to keep this definition in mind when speaking of the Abrahamic, Old and New Covenants. Let’s reiterate the previous point of contention between Baptists and paedobaptists.
We have here a fundamental difference with the paedobaptist understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant. The aforementioned placed the natural and spiritual posterities of Abraham in the same Covenant of Grace; the first inheriting only the physical blessings of the covenant and the second benefiting also from the spiritual privileges.[x]
The Baptist sees one posterity as Abraham’s natural offspring (Old Covenant) and a second as his spiritual (regenerate) offspring (New Covenant). But the issue is not natural vs. spiritual. Neither the Old Covenant nor the New Covenant are ultimately extended through history by natural offspring. Natural descent plays a distinct role inasmuch as it deals with covenant representation, but both covenants extend confessionally through history. And yes, paedobaptists do in fact place or mix regenerate and unregenerate “posterities” within both the Old Covenant and New Covenants. That is because we are speaking in terms of God’s ordained covenant framework on earth while understanding there will be one elect community in heaven.
So what is the big difference aside from all of this talk of natural and spiritual? It is simple. The Baptist does not see an objective covenant administration of the Abrahamic Covenant at all in time and space. They see a covenant promise (in the Old Testament) and the fulfillment of the promise in a New Covenant, regenerate people. They go from “promise on earth” to “fulfillment in heaven”. There is no real manifestation of God’s covenant people. They do not really see the Abrahamic Covenant discernably administered at all in history. It is always and ever God’s elect from before time.
THE (UNSEEN) HEART OF THE MATTER
To put this another way, from the Baptist perspective, who has membership in the New Covenant? I quote again,
The Baptists believed that only the regenerated elect were in the covenant because they only saw one level to the Covenant of Grace into which one entered through faith alone.”[xi]
The covenant is not separated from salvation.
The Baptists…could not separate the covenant from salvation.[xii]
It has no true manifestation on earth.
it did not have an external administration in which the non-elect were to be found[xiii]
This is why the Baptist takes issue with the paedobaptist understanding of “one covenant, two administrations”. The paedobaptist sees a definitive covenant made with Abraham that progressively works itself out in history and will finally culminate into God’s true, believing Israel. The Old and New Covenants were ordained administrations of God’s covenant with his ekklésia.
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman…Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:22-26 ESV)
“The Jerusalem above” is comprised of those who truly have faith in Jesus Christ – “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” (Gal. 3:7) Yet, we don’t see faith itself. We see faith confessed and demonstrated, but we do not see the heart. Hence, God’s appointing of a governed assembly throughout history under two distinct covenants.
In the quote above, Paul was speaking to a mixed community who was called-out as the church. Who can see those who truly have faith in history? Only God. Therefore he binds himself in covenant with those who confess in time and space. Confession marks out the people of God. So, contrary to above, it is most certainly a mixed community in time and space.
A covenant in history serves a function in God’s economy. Those who confess place themselves formally under Christ’s authority in the church. All children under the confessor’s authority through the family covenant are necessarily under the formal authority of Christ and the church as well. If they grow up to 1) denounce their faith or 2) demonstrate unrepentant rebellion, then Christ’s under-shepherds, through a process of church discipline would ultimately cut them off in history. The covenant structure is preserved from Old Testament (covenant) through the New.
The Baptist tries to approximate this structure at times, but when doing so is inconsistent.
Only authentic faith, according to the Baptists allowed one to enter into the Covenant of Grace. Therefore, only those who had a credible profession of faith could make up the visible Church.[xiv]
But their church is not marked-out through covenant in history if it is only with the elect. In the Baptist paradigm, there are no true covenant boundaries on earth since the covenant is only with truly regenerate people.
DISCERNABLE COVENANT BOUNDARIES
In his book, Denault quotes Thomas Blake, a paedobaptist, from his Vindiciae Foederis.
The restriction of the Covenant (to shut out all non-Regenerate) makes an utter confusion between the Covenant itself, and the conditions of it; or (if that expression do not please) the Covenant itself and the duties required in it, between our entrance into Covenant, and our observation of it, or walking up in faithfulnesse to it.[xv]
I would go beyond the words “utter confusion” to “inability to discern”.
It is not surprising that Baptists see the Abrahamic Covenant as only a promise with no earthly covenant administration in the Old Testament. Since the New Covenant is only with the elect, there is no true, earthly covenant expression in the New Testament of the Covenant of Grace, and so there certainly would not be one in the Old. Their overall framework has no room for an earthly manifestation of the people of God, marked out in time and space through covenant boundaries.
As opposed to this framework or structure, the consistent paedobaptist (of which there are many who are not) sees an objective way to enter the Covenant of Grace in history. They see this in both the Old and New Covenants (Testaments). This does not mean they do not have a firm grip on the reality of true sons of Abraham, the elect, or True Israel. This is the final expression of God’s New Covenant people at the end of time.
In the last article I stated that the New Covenant for paedobaptists is ultimately with the elect in eternity. What was decreed before time comes to a final expression at the end of time. But in history, there is an objective covenant boundary marked out and governed as a “mixed community”. The New Covenant manifests itself in this way and becomes structurally congruent with the Old. Yet, it is completely new in substance.
The New Covenant is surely unconditional in that God initiates and enters into it unconditionally. And unlike Israel, the Church will continue throughout history and into eternity as God’s bride. She has blemishes in history, but ultimately will be carried over the threshold of eternity by Christ as a spotless bride.
Yet, all of this does not mean there are not conditions in the earthly manifestation of the covenant relationship. The reality of excommunication is certainly evidence of such. God gives us a conditional structure and framework through which the church can function and ultimately bring about the fullness of God’s redemption of all things and the gathering of his elect.
How is this conditional structure judicially marked-out in time and space? The covenant boundary is confession. Confessors and those they lawfully, covenantally represent (children) are incorporated into the covenant body, assembly, congregation or ekklésia.
Covenant-breakers are cut off. Those who renounce their faith, no longer confess, or are found unrepentant of transgressing the covenant are put outside the boundary. They were surely in covenant in time and space even if they may not be God’s elect. Contrary to the Baptist use of 1 John 2:19, those that go “out from us” because they are “not of us” does not mean those that fall away were not formally bound in covenant with God’s people in time and space.
There are those with truly rebellious hearts who for all their lives go undiscerned within the covenant boundaries. But what escaped the fallible judgment of elders will not escape the perfect judgment of the Heavenly Father. The imperfectly governed, mixed community on earth will one day become the perfectly discerned, spotless Bride of Christ in eternity.
Thus, the real contention of the Baptists becomes an objection to covenant objectivity. It is to this contention that I would respond, “earth to the Baptist church, please come back”.
[i] Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 63.
[ii] Ibid, 56.
[iii] Ibid, 45.
[iv] Ibid, 88.
[v] Ibid, 47.
[vi] Ibid, 117.
[vii] Ibid, 119.
[viii] Ibid, 118.
[ix] Ibid, 57.
[x] Ibid, 120.
[xi] Ibid, 88.
[xiii] Ibid, 86.
[xiv] Ibid, 87.
[xv] Ibid, 52.