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.