Three Ways of Relating to the One Covenant of Grace

At the PB the question was asked:

We know that there are at least two categories of people within Scripture, the elect, and the non-elect. However, it might be apparent that there is a third class of people, those who have taken the physical sign of the covenant but are not elect.

We know that not all of the Jews were literally God’s people, but there were those who took the sign of the covenant although they weren’t elect. Also, we know that not all Christians are saved, even though they profess faith in Christ and have taken on the sign of the new covenant, that of Baptism. Could we then say there is a third category of human beings, those who have placed themselves as covenanted with God, but whom God has not Himself covenanted with?

To which I reply:

There is no need to think of three classes of people but it is helpful and biblical to think of different ways of relating to the one covenant of grace. Some are in the visible covenant community and believe (from which we know that they are elect).

Some are in covenant of grace outwardly but do not believe (and let us suppose that they will never believe). These are hypocrites and reprobate but they do participate in the administration of the covenant of grace. They are not united to Christ (contra the Federal Vision) but they, like Esau and Ishmael, have received the external signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They do “taste of the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5) but since those signs/seals are not mixed with faith (because they are not elect; Rom 9) the signs/seals ultimately testify to their destruction (though we cannot necessarily know that at the time).

Then there is a class of folk who have no relation to the covenant of grace at all. They are outside its external administration and its substance altogether. These, like those who are involved in the administration but who have not yet believed, are the proper objects of evangelism—though we are all the proper objects of evangelism in some sense. As White Horse Inn guys always remind us, the gospel is for Christians too.

So, better than speaking of three classes, why not speak of three ways of relating to the one covenant of grace? By recognizing that non-elect folk are actually, really, involved in the administration of the covenant of grace we avoid the Baptist error of excluding all but the elect from the covenant of grace altogether and we avoid the Federal Vision error of conflating the administration of the covenant with its substance, i.e. of confusing administration and decree (thus setting up their temporary, conditional union, election, justification, adoption etc.

Then the question came:

I’m trying to figure out myself how a Reformed Baptist views the NT covenant people as compared to Presbyterians.

I reply:

They tend to identify the New Covenant/Testament entirely with the elect. They tend not to distinguish between the two (or three) ways of relating to the one covenant of grace. Like the FV (though unintentionally) they tend to conflate the decree of election with its administration.

This is how they distinguish between Abraham and Moses (whom they lump together, even though Paul distinguishes them) on the one hand and the New Testament on the other. They assign the time for administering the covenant of grace to children to Abraham/Moses and they make New Testament so spiritual, so eschatological in nature that, as a result, it can be only for the elect. Thus, they restrict baptism to believers so as to keep from administering baptism to any Esaus or Ishmaels whereas the Reformed see a greater continuity between Abraham and Christ. Just as there was, under Abraham both an administration of the covenant of grace AND a substance (Rom 2:28) so under Christ there remains both administration AND substance.

No one ordinarily participates in the substance without participating in the external administration but participation in the administration does not guarantee participation in and reception of the substance. Only election determines whether one who participates in the administration (via baptism) also participates in the substance of the covenant of grace.

For more on these topics see:

“Baptism and the Benefits of Christ”

The Covenant of Grace

Baptism Election-Featured






[This post first appeared in 2007 on the HB]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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