Did The Covenant Of Grace Begin In The New Covenant?

One frequently reads that the only real differences between Particular Baptists and the Reformed is over baptism. That claim, however, misses some fundamental differences. Baptists withhold the rite of covenant initiation from the children of believers on the ground that the New Covenant is substantially different from the preceding covenants. In essence, the claim is that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are covenants of works and the New Covenant is the only real administration of the covenant of grace. The Second London Baptist Confession (1689), 7.3 says, in part, “This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament” (emphasis added). There is good evidence from the early Particular Baptist tradition that the intent of this carefully crafted language was to suspend the covenant of works until the new covenant. In this understanding of redemptive history, what is revealed is that there will be a covenant of grace in the New Covenant but that everything that transpired before is really some version of the Old Covenant.

In contrast the Reformed have always confessed that the covenant of grace was inaugurated in history in Genesis 3:14–16. Verse 15 says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV). The history of redemption is the outworking of the promise. Redemptive history is the battle between the Serpent and the Seed of the Woman, who must die even as he crushes the head of the serpent. That promise was both progressively revealed and progressively administered thereafter under Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Heidelberg Catechism 19 says,

From where do you know this?

From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.

The Westminster Confession of Faith 7.5 says:

This covenant [of grace] was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

For the Reformed, Adam, after the fall, was in a covenant of grace. Noah and his family were baptized into the external administration of the covenant of grace. Abraham and his covenant children were circumcised into the external administration of the covenant of grace. Moses and David were participants in typological, shadowy administrations of the covenant of grace. Each of the administrations had its own facet and, in its own way, pointed believers to the fulfillment of the promise.

It is true that, of themselves, the blood of bulls, goats, lambs, rams, and pigeons obtained nothing. They only had power as they anticipated (and in that way anticipated) the fulfillment, the true lamb of God, the prophet, priest, and king: Jesus. His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension gave power to the types and shadows but that does not mean that the covenant of grace did not yet exist.

The difference between the types and the fulfillment is the difference between inauguration and consummation. A marriage is contracted (engagement) before it is consummated on the wedding day. The inauguration is a real administration of the marriage even though it is not the consummation. To use another analogy, humans develop in stages but they are humans right the way through. An infant is in utero, then post partum, he is in diapers, short pants, jeans, and finally, as grown up, he puts on a suit. These are administrations of the same life. Paul makes this analogy explicitly in Galatians 3.

Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David were all administrations of the covenant of grace. The Scriptures themselves will not allow us to turn Abraham into a covenant of works. Genesis 15:6 is basic to the biblical doctrine of salvation: “Abraham believed God and his faith was credited to him for righteousness.” Paul makes much of this by arguing, in Romans 4, that Abraham was the first Christian. He was a Christian when he was a Gentile, before he was circumcised, and he was a Christian after he was circumcised. He is the father of all Christians, Jewish and Gentile alike. Noah found grace in the eyes of Yahweh (Gen 6:8). According to Hebrews 11 Abraham was not looking for land but for heaven. He already believed in the resurrection. That is why he took Isaac up the hill to be sacrificed. Moses identified with Christ rather than the Egypt. Who can read the Psalms of David and conclude that he did not actually participate in the covenant of grace but was merely anticipating the New Covenant? Time after time, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are portrayed not merely as anticipating a future covenant of grace to be inaugurated in the New Covenant, but to be participants in shadowy administrations of the covenant of grace.

It is true that there is a particularly legal quality to the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The Reformed traditionally recognized this quality when they described the old, Mosaic covenant as a “republication” of the covenant of works. None of our theologians, of whom I am aware, ever taught that the old or Mosaic covenant was republication of the covenant of works in the sense that one might be saved from the divine wrath by law keeping. Most of our theologians were clear in saying that the Mosaic covenant was, as Paul says, a “pedagogue” (παιδαγωγὸς; Gal 3:24—a παιδαγωγὸς had a ruler or a switch with which to punish students who did not memorize their lessons completely). The 613 commandments (as the rabbis counted them) were to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery, to drive them to Christ. Never was salvation by works, not even under Moses.

Other Reformed writers, e.g., John Owen, spoke of the Mosaic covenant as “subordinate” to the covenant of grace. I am increasingly convinced that this language has been misunderstood both by Baptist writers (who give the impression that Owen was with them or would have been had he lived longer) and by some Reformed writers. Owen was merely trying to account for the dual aspect of the Mosaic covenant, that it was both a pedagogical administration of the covenant of works and an administration of the covenant of grace. Insofar as it was an administration of the covenant of works it was subordinate. This is what Paul argues in Galatians 3:15. That does not mean that Moses was not also an administration of the covenant of grace and, insofar as that is true, co-equal to the Noahic and Abrahamic administrations.

Indeed, Paul subordinates the Mosaic, in a way he does not with the Noahic and the Abrahamic, when he specifically identifies the Mosaic administration or the Mosaic covenant as “the old covenant” (2 Cor 3:14). Hebrews 7:18 speaks of the “weakness” and “uselessness” of the Mosaic covenant. Hebrews 7:22 says that the New Covenant is “better” than the old, Mosaic covenant. Paul says that the typological Mosaic law (not the abiding moral law) is “not of faith” (Gal 3:12). He says that the Mosaic covenant was a temporary codicil to the permanent Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:17) but he never intended us to think that people were saved under Moses in any other way than by grace alone, through faith alone.

Indeed, Hebrews 12 makes us think that God the Son was at Sinai. By analogy we should think that God the Son walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. He came as the “Angel of Yahweh” in Genesis 16. It was he who wrestled with Jacob. It was the pre-incarnate Son who called to Abraham, “Here am I!” The prefiguring of the future realities and the intrusion of the ultimate realities into the period of types and shadows are all tell us that the types and shadows were administrations (and not mere anticipations) of the covenant of grace.

Some Particular Baptists, however, resist the very language of administration of the covenant of grace but it has a significant place in Paul’s covenant theology. His argument that the Jews were blessed for having participated in the history of redemption is a defense of the significance of the external administration of the covenant of grace.

This resistance to the very idea of administration reveals a profound difference between Particular Baptist theology and Reformed theology. We understand that God had always administered his covenant of grace outwardly and it is through that messy, historical administration that God sovereignly brings his elect to true faith. God commanded that both Ishamel and Isaac receive the sign of external admission to the covenant people (Gen 17:23). Jacob and Esau both received the sign. The same is true in the New Covenant. In that respect, nothing has fundamentally changed. There were household circumcisions under the types and shadows and there were household baptisms (e.g., Acts 16:15) in the New Covenant. This is why, though we practice church discipline, we do so with the understanding that our judgments are provisional. Church discipline (Matt 18) exists because the church is necessarily mixed. There have always been and shall always be within the visible church both the elect and the reprobate (Matt 13:39–40).

When God the Son became incarnate, he did not inaugurate the covenant of grace. He fulfilled the promises made through the prophets. The New Covenant is a new administration of the covenant of grace but without types and shadows. Even the New Covenant must be administered, however. Hebrews shows us the reality of the administration of the New Covenant. People made profession of faith but fall away (Heb 6:4, 5), they spurn the Son of God and profane the blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29). The New Covenant is not heaven but the last provisional administration of the covenant of grace before glory.

With all due affection to those discovering the Reformed confession but who still identify as Baptist. It is not possible to be Reformed and to say that the covenant of grace was not in effect until the New Covenant. It contradicts Scripture as confessed plainly by the Reformed churches.

More Resources On These Topics.

19 comments

  1. Good post, Scott. While I follow covenant theology, and wholeheartedly agree with infant baptism, I notice from your quote from the 2d London Baptist Confession that it seems to say the Covenant of grace was revealed in God’s promise to Adam concerning redemption.

    Further, I’d like to ask this: the Roman Catholics speak of an old law and a new law. Does this make them a species of Dispensationalists?

    • Peter,

      Yes, the 2nd LBC distinguishes between revealed and established. The LBC is confessing that the covenant of grace did not yet exist in history (in the mind of God yes but not in history) whereas the Reformed are saying that God made a covenant of grace with Adam after the fall. The question is whether the covenant of grace existed in history and was being administered in types and shadows or whether it was being anticipated in types and shadows but did not actually exist.

      The Patristic and Medieval church turned to “old law/new law” as a way to unify Scripture over against dualists of various kinds. In its errant way it was a kind of anti-Dispensationalism. It so unified Scripture and redemption as to cover over the theological differences between law and gospel.

  2. Many thanks, Dr. Clark, for a very succinct yet thorough posting on this doctrine. I have yet to convince certain colleagues and church members that “Reformed” Baptists are not Reformed but Calvinist (follow the London Confession) on the doctrine of salvation, perseverance, sanctification, et cetera.

    I intend forwarding your article to many of them, in the hope that they will make the correct distinction.

    [Let me add that I do receive indeed my Baptist friends (and some in my family!) as brothers and sisters in Christ, but they are not Reformed.]

    Ron Beabout, Evangelist
    Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic
    Orthodox Presbyterian Church

  3. Excellent explanation of the Reformed position compared to the Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Grace, particularly that of the 1689
    Federalists who want to justify credobaptism by saying the Covenant of
    Grace does not exist until the New Covenant and therefore only believers
    who are under the Covenant of Grace may be baptized, because it is
    completely different in substance from the covenants of the Old Testament.
    Therefore children who are presumed not to have faith are not under grace,
    and ineligible to be baptized. What I find disturbing about this is, that like the
    Dispensationalists they are denying that God always accepts His people on
    the same terms.

    • This is false. 1689 Federalist do not believe the substance is different. They believe any saint that has even been saved is by Christ. However, they believed the OT saints were saved by the promise of the new covenant that was to come as Paul in Romans 4 and in Galatisans and the author of Hebrews says Abraham was saved by a promise. 1689 Federalist believe they were saved by the anticipation of the New Covenant as they were saved by the anticipation of the final sacrifice. Your comment seemed to be collapsing Dispensationalist with Reformed Baptists

  4. What I find disturbing about 1689 Federalism is that they present the New
    Covenant as completely different in substance from the covenants in the
    O T as though, like the Dispensationalists, God has two completely different
    ways of dealing with his people.

    • Though I’m Presbyterian now, this isn’t entirely accurate. “Completely different in substance” implies that LBCF adherents treat Abraham as a covenant of works, which is false. They believe that the Gospel was given “first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament” (LBCF 7.3), i.e. that while it was not the covenant of grace, it was at least a shadow of this. Furthermore, they believe that once the CoG was given, “it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality” (ibid), namely that it was retroactively applied to all elect.

      In other words, they agree with us that only through the CoG does anyone obtain salvation. This is not NCT.

    • David,

      I do not blame you for being a little confused. There are Particular Baptists who would say something like what you have said above. If, however, you will follow the link (in the article above) by a particular Baptist scholar, he will see that he indeed says that The Abraham was a covenant was a covenant of works not a covenant of grace.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Pascal Denault’s work, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, shows that a major stream of Particular Baptists said that God made two covenants with Abraham: one was a covenant of grace, a pure promise, which would later be established in the blood of Christ and the new covenant, the other was a fleshly covenant and a “covenant of works” in the sense that it had *no saving substance,* though it certainly preached the gospel of the covenant of grace in its types and shadows. The historical purpose of this temporal covenant, which would continue in the Mosaic covenant and Davidic covenants, was to preserve the line of promise, until the coming of Christ. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any need for a fleshly, temporal covenant.

    Thus, I don’t think it’s correct to say that particular Baptists believe the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works, unless you specific which covenant you’re talking about.

    Grace to you brother.

    • Tom,

      I’m following Sam Renihan, who was following Nehemiah Coxe:

      Using the substance logic of Reformed theology (law-gospel), the Particular Baptists argued that to enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant one must obey a positive law, circumcision. Disobedience disinherits. Nehemiah Coxe said, “we first meet with an express Injunction of Obedience to a Command (and that of positive Right) as the Condition of Covenant Interest.”[2] This is the nature of a covenant of works.

      Based on this foundation, Particular Baptists immediately connected the Abrahamic covenant to the Mosaic covenant. Coxe said:

      “In this Mode of transacting [the covenant], the Lord was pleased to draw the first Lines of that Form of Covenant-Relation, which the natural Seed of Abraham, were fully stated in by the Law of Moses, which was a Covenant of Works, and its Condition or Terms, Do this and live.”

      This seems like a rather significant difference between the Reformed and the Particular Baptist tradition(s). I understand that not everyone among the PB traditions agrees with Coxe but I’ll let the PBs sort themselves out. That’s not my job.

      My job here is to help Reformed folk understand what we confess. Here I’m doing it by way of contrast.

      The language and theology of the 2nd LBC (1689) chapter 7 is markedly different from that of the Reformed confession.

      We do not see two legitimate peoples, earthly and spiritual. As I wrote above, from our perspective, there was always one visible people, one covenant of grace, administered through various types and shadows among which were land and national status. That’s another great difference between the Particular Baptists and the Reformed.

      Even in your comment, you say that the covenant of grace would “be established” in future. We say that it was established with Adam after the fall and reiterated to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. That’s a 3rd major distinction.

    • One critic writes:

      If any OT saint participated in the covenant of grace, they participated in the New Covenant, because only the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace

      This is a concise statement of the view I am rejecting.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for taking the time with Baptists to work out there covenant theology through the lens of the Reformed view. I am a 1689 Baptists and I had a question. You said it’s false that saints were saved by the anticipation of the new covenant. I am wondering biblically if you can support this with verses? Baptists can show that OT saints were saved by the promise of the new covenant in the NT. Why is it false to say the OT saints were not saved by the anticipation of the new covenant? Jesus says Abraham was saved by an anticipation of His day in John 8. Paul argues the saints in the OT were saved by the anticipation of the final sacrifice. Why is it fallacious to say that OT saints were saved by the anticipation of the New Covenant?

    Thanks

    • Matt,

      I think I did what you asked. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness. That is the covenant of grace in operation. That’s what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 4. That’s why he appeals to Abraham as the pattern for Christians. Abraham was a Christian when he was a Gentile and he was a Christian when he became a Jew.

      It was, after all, to Abraham that God said: I will be your God and your children’s God. It began right then. He did not say, “I will become your God in the New Covenant.” Yahweh was a God to Abraham and to his children right then.

      The covenant of grace did not begin in the New Covenant. The New Covenant is new—so says Jer 31:31–34—relative to Moses. The New Covenant is the renewal of the Abrahamic covenant without the types and shadows.

      Take a look at the resources linked, especially the resources on covenant theology and infant baptism. Have you listened to the podcast series? I go into the Abrahamic covenant in more detail there. This essay is just part of a larger project,

    • Dr. Clark,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. I do understand your position of the Abrahamic covenant and I’m on episode 13 of the podcast. I understand biblically your position of the covenant of grace and think it’s excellent. However, 1689 Federalist will argue that Paul says Abraham was saved by the “promise” of the covenant. They will argue that nowhere in the NT does it say Abraham was saved by the covenant of grace but only by the promise (Romans 4, Galatians 3, Hebrews 6:13-18). The covenant of grace was revealed but not established until Christ came (Heb. 8:6). In the same way, Jesus’ day was revealed to Abraham but it didn’t actually happen until Christ came (John 8:58). The final sacrifice of Jesus was revealed but not established in the OT sacrifices. The 1689 Baptists will argue likewise the covenant of grace was revealed but not established in the OC.
      How would you argue against their view that a promise and covenant are different?

      Grace to you brother.

    • Matthew,

      The Lord entered into a personal saving relationship with Abraham. He called it a covenant. It existed then, in Abraham’s life time. It is not described as future. This is not my interpretation, this is James’ interpretation: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God” (James 2:23). See also 2 Chron 20:7.

      Jacob spoke with God (the Son) “face to face” (Gen 32:30). So also Moses (Deut 34:10).

      One would have to know a priori that it was entirely future for it to be so.

      I would argue against their view by paying close attention to what the text of holy Scripture actually says. A covenant is a promise and promise is a covenant. They are used as synonyms in 1 Chron 16:16: “the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac…” and in Ps 105:9—”the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac” Finally, see Gal 3:17: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” The “promise” to which Paul refers is the covenant that God made with Abraham. See Gen 17: “This is my covenant…” The covenant was right then. It was a covenant of grace, a gracious promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” This is the promise that Peter invoked in Acts 2:39.

  7. I would find my perplexity in your statement “Paul says that the typological Mosaic law (not the abiding moral law) is ‘not of faith’ (Gal 3:12).” If Paul says that the abiding moral law actually is “of faith,” would he have not gone on to explain himself (Gal 3:12b), “on the contrary, ‘he who practices them shall live by them”?

    Let me state the objection another way, since many comments were made about Adam. The rule (which is a law) that God gave Adam included “in the day you eat from eat you will surely die (Gen 2:17).” Surely it correct to say that Adam received grace from the very moment of “the fall,” since he didn’t die. But God’s words of Gen 2:17 certainly explained ramifications of His command to Adam. The whole dealing with Adam that Genesis 3 depicts, none of it follows as a consequence of Gen 2:17. God’s command to Adam concurs with Paul’s description of law: he who does them (God’s commands) shall live by them. From Gen 2:17, we must conclude that Adam could not expect to live, by what he himself, did not do.

    So why does Paul say, “on the contrary” in Gal 3:12 regarding law, that it is not of faith? It cannot be that Paul would say that the abiding moral law was of faith, if his very reason for saying that the law is not of faith is because to live by the law, is to do the law. In his later letter, Romans, Paul also says “the law brings about wrath” (Rm 4:15). The Law is glorious, but not because it is of faith. It isn’t. Justice is not something that contains within itself a watered-down version that people with faith can substitute and get their behavior graded on a curve.

    In that same section is a resolution not touched on by the post: Paul says that the righteousness of God revealed is _witnessed_ by the Law and the Prophets (Rm 3:21). Certainly Adam, and we ourselves as readers, witnessed God’s righteousness revealed in an unexpected manner, completely. Abraham witnessed, and we, God crediting righteousness to him. The surprising righteousness of (as if a pun, righteousness belonging to God, and righteousness that comes from God to us) is witnessed by the law. The moral law witnesses it, but does not contain all of it. The moral law is made up of “to live by the law, is to do the law.” Grace is not a watered-down or unfulfilled moral law. Christ died bearing its punishment for sins, according to the righteousness of God.

    • Larry,

      I would find my perplexity in your question. I am not following you. I think you’re assuming things that are not stated. Please try again:

      What is your thesis (your case, your point) and where do you think that we disagree?

      Thanks.

  8. From the 2LBC: (notice by farther steps)
    Chapter 7 – Of God’s Covenants
    3. This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, e and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament;f and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect;g and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all of the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.

    Chapter 8 – Of Christ the Mediator
    6. Although the price of redemption was not actually paid by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefit thereof were communicated to the elect in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices wherein He was revealed, and signified to be the seed which should bruise the serpent’s head;h’ and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,i’ being the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.j’

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