Tracing The Paradigm Shift: Two Ways Of Being In The Covenant Of Grace

… the participation (communio) of the covenant of grace is two-fold. The one includes merely symbolical and common benefits (beneficia), which have no certain connection with salvation, and to which infants are admitted by their relation to parents that are within the covenant; and adults, by the profession of faith and repentance, even though insincere…. The other participation of the covenant of grace, is the partaking of its internal, spiritual, and the saving goods (bonorum), as the forgiveness of sins, the writing of the law in the heart, etc. accordingly the apostle makes a distinction between the Jew outwardly and the Jew inwardly,—between circumcision in the flesh and the letter, and circumcision in the heart and Spirit; which, by analogy may be transferred to Christianity. Modified from the translation in Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, ed. Donald Fraser, 2 vols. (Edinburgh
and Glasgow: A. Fullarton & Co. and Khull, Blackie & Co., 1823) 2.354–55.

Most of the approximately 60 million evangelicals in North America live within a shared paradigm, a set of assumptions and convictions about the nature of the history of redemption and the church. So dominant is this paradigm that most in the majority are probably unaware that they read Scripture under a shared set of assumptions or that there is an alternative. This alternate paradigm rooted in an alternate explanation of the history of redemption and the nature of the church. It was the way that virtually all the Protestant Reformers (Lutheran and Reformed) read Scripture and it was transmitted to the American colonies but that paradigm was eclipsed in the 18th and 19th centuries by another.

As American evangelicals have encountered the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement (a more accurate title for which would be Young, Restless, and Augustinian or Young, Restless, and Predestinarian) some have begun to become aware that there is more to being Reformed than simply the doctrines of grace, e.g., unconditional election and particular atonement. The dominant paradigm in American evangelicalism holds that the nature of redemptive history is such that, under the New Covenant, a local congregation is to be composed only of regenerate persons, only of those who have been given new life and admitted to baptism upon profession of faith. In this paradigm there is only one way to participate in the covenant of grace. Even that latter category may be unfamiliar, however.

As the Reformed churches understand the history of redemption and the nature of the visible church, however, there has always been what the Reformed theologian Herman Witsius (1636–1708) a “twofold” or “double” way of being in the church or in the covenant of grace, i.e., that sphere where God gives his people new life and brings them to true faith in Christ and nurtures that faith. We say this on the basis of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 2–3:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom 2:28–3:2; ESV).

He used similar language, in Romans to explain the mystery of election: “…For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named'” (Rom 9:6–7). For Paul, there have always been two ways of being in or relating to the visible church or that institution in which God’s covenant of grace is administered: outwardly and inwardly. This is why he explained in Romans 2 and 3 that a Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly. It is wonderful and even necessary to participate in the outward administration of the covenant of grace. This is why he goes on to explain in Romans 3 (as he did in Romans 11) the benefits of being a part of the visible covenant people under national Israel. They had the covenants, the prophets, circumcision etc. God used these things to bring his people to faith but these outward means do not of themselves bring people to faith nor do they make one an actual believer. This is where Romans 9 enters. Behind these outward administrations lies the God’s secret, mysterious election. God loved Jacob and hated Esau from all eternity. This is why both participated in the outward administration of the covenant of grace. Both were, as it were, members of the same congregation but only one came to faith, only one was a believer. Only one of them was elect.

So it is today in the New Testament. Pace who assume that in the New Covenant everything has changed and there is, in effect, no outward administration, Paul’s great point in these passages is to say precisely the opposite. Why do you think he went to all the trouble to write those words, to say, in effect, “This is how it once was but it’s not that way any longer”? Not at all. The reason for his explanation in chapters 2, 3, and 11 is to show the parallels between the Old Testament administration and the New. The bloody types and shadows are fulfilled in Christ but the mystery of election is still worked out through the external administration of the covenant of grace in the visible, Christ-confessing covenant community (the church).

As with Jacob and Esau there are always two kinds of people in the visible church: those who are outward members, who participate in the external administration and those who, by grace alone, through faith alone, receive what is offered and promised in the administration. Indeed, it is through the external administration that the elect are ordinarily brought to new life and true faith in Christ. The church preaches the law and the gospel to everyone in the visible church. This is why the Reformed churches continue to follow the Abrahamic pattern (Abraham was not Moses) by admitting to the visible church believers and their children. As with Abraham we raise those children in the faith and, when they make profession that they too have personally taken up the promises of the gospel, admit them to the Lord’s Table as the sign and seal of nourishment in the covenant of grace.

As we count heads, this understanding is the minority understanding of the way the Lord ordinarily works but it was the understanding of the Reformers about whom our Young, Restless, and Augustinian friends are discovering. Go ahead. Knock on Calvin’s door and take a look at the rest of his Institutes. In book 3 is his discussion of election but in book 4 is his discussion of the church and the covenant signs and seals. There you will see that however much you might agree with book 3, there is a real tension between the American evangelical understanding of redemptive history or the nature of the church and Calvin’s. Like Witsius and the rest of the Reformed, he synthesized Paul’s account of Jacob and Esau, of election, and the internal/external distinction and it shaped his understanding of how the the Lord sovereignly, graciously works in his church today.

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5 comments

  1. Thank you Dr. Clark, this is helpful. I have a question- did Calvin’s and the Reformer’s views on the covenant of grace differ substantially from the Roman Catholic Church of their time, and if so, how? As a Baptist, I was always told that infant baptism was something that simply “carried over” from the RC church, that the Reformers just didn’t get that far.

    • Jeri,

      Yes, indeed. Rome held (and holds) that grace is a substance with which we are infused. In Rome baptism regenerates (by the working it is worked). According to Rome, baptism justifies initially.

      Calvin and the Reformed reject all that.

      The narrative or claim that Calvin was not Reformed enough is incorrect. It was not a matter of being bound to Rome. Calvin and the Reformed were entirely willing to reject Rome when and where Rome contradicted Scripture. They taught their view of baptism because they believed it to be biblical. That is why we confess what we do in the Heidelberg Catechism and the other Reformed confessions.

      For more on the Reformed approach to baptism, on its own terms, under its own paradigm see these resources:

      Resources on infant baptism.

      Curriculum

      Questions and Answers

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