2. Under the new covenant or testament, however, these promised blessings are not given to all men, because God is true, thus the covenant is necessarily discriminate. These blessings are, however, given doubly when the covenant is received. In the first place, by the substance itself of the covenant, or by the promised blessings from God themselves, then by their administration in the visible assembly. In the first meaning learned from Jeremiah in the place already cited and which substance is peculiar to the elect.
For to all the elect and to them alone, this part, the remission of sins, renewal to the image of God, and the knowledge of God itself is therefor promised, or which embraces God’s favor which they would never have had from themselves (John 6:44,45; 64,65; 10:26; 11:52; Acts 13:47,48; Romans 8:29,30; 9:7,8,9,11,15,16; Titus 1:1).
Thus Moses spoke about substance of the covenant (Deuteronomy 30[:6]). “God will circumcise your heart and that of your children.” He acts truly in the administration of the covenant, (Genesis 17), ‘This is my covenant’ etc. Likewise he says, ‘My covenant will be in your flesh.’ Certainly, the very substance of the covenant was not in their flesh. And not all of their hearts were circumcised, to whom the covenant was administered or offered through circumcision (Acts 7:51,52,53). That is to say, they personally, maliciously, rejected the gracious offer of the covenant, as Stephen teaches in the same place. Therefore, the covenant of grace, if you see its essence, is a sworn oath promised by God, a gift to you by God who who is never angry with you (Isaiah 54) and by our adoption in God’s Son we have been made heirs of eternal life with Jesus Christ the eternal and only begotten Son of God, the seed of Abraham who is Christ, and to all men, who by faith in this free gift which was brought by the seed, and in whom by grace they were justified and glorified short of any condition or stipulation, knowledge of the good, so that he might be celebrated in his gracious goodness from himself, in this life and life eternal (Hosea 2; Isaiah 54; Genesis 22; Hebrews chapters 1, 6; Galatians 3:15-18, 22,26,29).
The administration of the covenant of grace, however, is through the testimony or call of the Royal word from the darkness (of which darkness he is convicted by the law partly natural and partly written) that is, from sin and the penalty of sin, to the light, which is unto the discerning and receiving of the Son of God offered in the gospel, with the double benefit, truly, free rightousness in the remission of sins, by cleansing in his blood, and renewal to the image of God or the spirit of holiness for sharing in the heavenly inheritance.
By the outward voice and visible signs in the testimony of mutual agreement between God and us, and by the addition of the truly efficacious gift of grace of internal faith and repentance out the infinite, incomprehensible mercy to the elect, which mercy is not truly added indeed to the reprobate, but nevertheless justly and to the worship of God’s justice. For the call from the darkness to the light, that is, the gracious offer, is never rejected without evil and contumacy of the heart.
Caspar Olevianus, De substantia, 1.1.2
Hi Dr. Clark, I honestly struggle with the idea that God superficially brings people into the covenant of grace and later rejects them on the basis of disobedience. This doesn’t sound like grace to me. Can you help shed light on this problem, and can you point me to some resources that spell out the benefits if external membership?
Why do you struggle? I think I know but it might help if you spelled out things.
As to the basic distinction it’s Romans 2:28 – there have always and only been two ways of being in the covenant of grace.
The thing to which we must pay attention is the administration of the covenant of grace. The administration is real. God uses it to bring his elect to faith. We don’t know who are and are not the elect.
When we speak about people having only an external relation to the covenant of grace, we’re speaking after the fact, by way of explanation as to why things were as they were. We’re not saying, “You have only an external relation…” We don’t (ordinarily) know that in this life. The church may recognize that someone has demonstrated that they do not actually believe and may exercise discipline in recognition of the state of things, but that is always done in hope that the person disciplined will repent and return to Christ. Even then the church is not saying: “this person is eternally reprobate.” We don’t know the divine decree. We can say, “This person shows himself to be an unbeliever.”
Here are some resources:
Thanks Dr. Clark! Viewing external administration in the after-the-fact or retro-video sense is new to me and very helpful. With regard to apostasy and “profaning the blood of the covenant,” would you view the blood of Christ as actually having been applied to the apostatizing member? If I compare this with the doctrine of limited atonement, I would have to say that it was only a figure of speech because the blood of Christ always saves and could never be profaned by a reprobate in any real sense. Is the external administration, then, only a figure of speech, or is there some spiritual realities to be found in it?
Take a look at this:
Yes, those who are members of the church do really, actually participate in the administration of the covenant of grace.
I think that your question assumes that anyone who participates in the administration of the covenant of grace must necessarily be saved. But clearly, as Hebrews says, that is not true. There are people about whom Hebrews is deeply concerned, who are tempted to return to Moses, who have trampled underfoot the blood as Hebrews says.
We should not assume that simply because we are talking about the new covenant that everything about the administration of the covenant of grace has changed or that the new covenant is substantially different from the Abrahamic covenant. This is a place where the reformed interpretation of the history of redemption differs from the Baptist.
Thanks for the article Dr. Clark. I read it all and it was a very helpful summary of many discussions I’ve had on the topic. I do have more question where I’ve heard various answers among the Reformed: who is the agent that administers the covenant of grace? Is it God or man? Thanks.
I don’t think we have to choose between them. The Lord has established the covenant of grace and operates through it and he has chosen to administer it in the visible church.
He uses servants or ministers or agents or even second causes to accomplish his purposes. In Reformed theology we talk about the due use of the ordinary means of grace.
Those means or instruments are established by God. They do not operate by themselves (as Rome suggests).
This is why we speak of three marks of the true church: The pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. The Heidelberg catechism calls these the keys of the kingdom.
So, we can say that God administers his kingdom Through the covenant of grace and he administers his kingdom through pastors who are authorized to preach the Word and administer the sacraments and through elders who rule in the church and through deacons who administer mercy to the congregation.
Is it possible, then, to be in the covenant of grace, yet NOT be visibly administered? I am thinking of the children of Baptists, for example. Would you say they are in the covenant as a result of their believing parents, YET remain visibly uninitiated into the administration thereof? Or, are they not administered UNTIL they are formally baptized?
This is a difficult question because it is complex. It involves speculation (reasoning from a premise) and the premises are a matter of debate. It involves the question of the status of Baptist congregations.
Speaking only for myself, it’s hard for me to see how those who hold Belgic Confession Art 29 can say that Baptist congregations are true churches. They may be but it’s not obvious to me how they are. The Belgic also says that there is no salvation outside the church but it’s also true that the Belgic doesn’t draw those conclusions.
The Baptist movement as we know if didn’t exist until ca. 1611. The Reformed churches didn’t speak explicitly, confessionally to this question. There’s some discussion of it in the Dutch church orders between the 1560s and 1630s, which gives us clues but these are formal declarations. If you search the archives on the HB you’ll see that there’s been a lot of discussion about whether Baptists are Reformed and the status of Baptist congregation relative to the Reformed confession.
My own opinions are controversial because we live in a time and place where there are 60 million Baptistic evangelicals and just a handful of confessional Reformed folk (about 500,000). It seems impertinent for a member of a tiny minority to say of such a large number, “You are x or y” (or not x or not y). They don’t want to hear it and so I get shouted down.
It’s also controversial within our own circles. We face the constant temptation to lower the standards for membership in our churches. To do that some have felt the need to re-define our relations to the Baptist traditions, especially those who affirm some or even much of our theology. To further complicate things there are two streams within the NAPARC world. The Presbyterians in NAPARC don’t ask members to affirm the confessional standards. They only ask officers (pastors and elders) to do so. Thus, they can admit Baptist members. Historically, the European Reformed churches (and the earlier Presbyterian churches) required members to affirm the confessions as part of membership.
I think it’s fair to say that, from a confessional Reformed perspective, it is at least irregular and even rebellious to refuse to administer the sign and seal of the covenant of grace to covenant children. Clearly our Baptist brothers and sisters love Jesus and some of them confess much of the same faith as we do but the “pure administration of the sacraments,” given the teaching of the Heidelberg and the Belgic on baptism and their strong denunciation of those who refuse to administer baptism to covenant children, is a problem.
We don’t confess, however, that baptism is necessary for salvation and God does work through irregular means and I have seen evidence that the covenant pattern persists in Baptist congregations—God brings parents and their children to faith—even where their eschatology (in my view) does not permit them to see children the way we confess that Scripture does. That gives me hope that someday more of my Baptist friends will see the covenant pattern in Scripture (“I will be a God to you and to your children”) in the same way we do. I have hope that they will come to see that the new covenant is a new administration of the Abrahamic covenant and that the type and shadow of circumcision has been replaced by the unbloody sign of baptism.