Engaging With 1689 (5): Was The Abrahamic Covenant Works Or Grace?

Now, that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, but rather a covenant of works, will soon be proved…

John Gill, (1697–1771) A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity or a System of Evangelical Truths Deduced From the Sacred Scriptures, 2 vols. (London, 1839), 2.630–31 (HT: Chad Vegas).

In part 4 we considered, in some detail, Galatians 4 as to whether Paul, in chapter 4, turns Abraham into Moses. In this installment we want to consider and respond to John Gill’s fascinating and revealing discussion of the nature of the typological covenants as he sought to refute the Reformed view of baptism and covenant theology. He was a significant eighteenth-century English Baptist theologian and has been influential on Particular Baptist theology. He was pastor for more than 50 years at Horsleydown, Southwark. That is the congregation that became the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which traces its founding to 1650, under the ministry of William Rider, who was succeeded by Benjamin Keach. One of Gill’s successors, of course, was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Gill was made Doctor of Divinity by the University of Aberdeen. He has been identified by some scholars (e.g., Peter Toon, 1967) with Hyper-Calvinism but that interpretation of his theology is disputed.

His treatment of baptism and the covenants is interesting. In the section below the quotation above is placed in its larger context. What we have is his response to various arguments in favor of infant baptism. There are natural breaks in his argument and thus I will address his interpretation of the covenants seratim.

It is not fact, as been asserted, that the infants of believers have, with their parents, been taken into covenant with God in the former ages of the church, if by it is meant the covenant of grace; the first covenant made with man was that of works, made with Adam, and which indeed included all his posterity, to whom he stood as a federal head, as no one ever since did to his natural offspring; in whom they all sinned, were condemned and died; which surely cannot be pleaded in favor of the infants of believers ! after the fall the covenant of grace, and the way of life and salvation by Christ, were revealed to Adam and Eve, personally, as interested therein; but not to the natural seed and posterity, and as interested therein; for then all mankind mus be taken into the covenant of grace and so nothing peculiar to the infants of believers; of which not the least syllable is mentioned throughout and whole age of the church, reaching from Adam to Noah.

One of the most persistent complaints that Baptists of all sorts make against the case for paedobaptism is that, in their view, it relies too much upon arguments from silence. Gill’s critique of paedobaptism (and his argument for believer’s baptism only), however, relied upon arguments from silence to a remarkable degree. Further, in effect, he arranges things so that, in the nature of the case, any covenant which did involve children (in the external administration) ipso facto cannot include children. These are the two main thrusts of his survey of the covenants and the history of redemption  leading up to Genesis 17.

Of course, Gill did not distinguish, as the Reformed did (and do) in the ways  that people are “taken into the covenant.” For the Reformed there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: externally and internally or outwardly and inwardly. Gill, however, has defined the covenant of grace in terms of the Baptist definition of the New Covenant so that he knew a priori that if what was instituted after the fall was a covenant of grace it could not therefore include the children of believers even if only externally. The only parent and offspring relation he sees is the covenant of works. Thus, if a covenant involves parents and offspring, then a covenant is necessarily an expression of the covenant of works.

We agree that there is a sharp distinction to be made between the covenant of grace and works but his definition of the covenants, on the basis of parents and children,  was arbitrary. The covenants of works and grace represent two distinct principles, “do this and live” versus “the seed of the woman shall crush his head.” Both make promises and both have conditions. Both are administered through or among groups or corporate entities. The next covenant to which Gill turned is a good example both of what Scripture actually says about the covenant of grace and how Gill misunderstood the history of redemption and the covenant of grace.

The next covenant we read of is that made with Noah, which was not made with him and his immediate offspring only; nor were any taken into it as infants of believers, nor had they any sacrament or rite as a token of it, and of God as being their God in a peculiar relation. Surely this will not be said of Ham, one of the immediate sons of Noah. That covenant was made with Noah, and with all mankind to the end of the world, and even with every living creature, the beasts of the field, promising security from a universal deluge, as long as the world should stand; and so had nothing peculiar to the infants of believers.

The first objection to Gill’s account of the Noahic covenant(s) is that he failed to distinguish the two. The covenant of Genesis 6 was a covenant of grace, redemptive and particular. The second covenant, in chapter 9, was a covenant of common grace, a promise that the Lord would restrain evil and preserve the world until the final judgment.

Second, both covenants had signs and seals or sacraments. According to the Apostle Peter, the sacrament of the Genesis 6 covenant was the flood. It signified and sealed the redemption of God’s little church (1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5; in my commentary on 1 and 2 Peter I argue that Peter explains the Christian faith and life in Noahic terms) by grace alone, through faith alone. The sacrament of the general covenant in Genesis 9 is the rainbow. It is the sign of the promise that God will preserve the earth until the final judgment.

Third, the covenant of Genesis 6 certainly involved Noah and his household. It was administered corporately, not individually. As Gill himself observed, it involved Ham, who was cursed, who becomes Canaan (Gen 9:22–25). If, therefore, Ham was reprobate, then he was included into the visible covenant community, into the visible administration of the covenant of grace, on the ark. Peter says that those 8 souls were “saved” not “by water,” but “through the water,” i.e., they were delivered through the judgment. The visible church has always been mixed, it has always had within it the elect, whom the Lord eventually brings to the faith, and the reprobate and hypocrites, whom the Lord has always hated from all eternity but whom, in his good pleasure and providence, he is pleased to include in his visible people (the visible church).

The Apostle Peter’s inspired interpretation of the Noahic covenant says just that:

because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 3:20–21; ESV).

As I have explained, Peter does not teach that anyone was saved (contra the sacerdotalists and Federal Visionists) by virtue of the baptism. Contra the sacerdotalists (e.g., Rome, Anglo-Catholics, and the Federal Visionists) the sacraments do not work ex opere (from their use) but they are always and only divinely instituted signs and seals of what God has promised and sovereignly, graciously accomplishes in his elect by grace alone, through faith alone.

For Peter, the flood is an Old Testament type and shadow of Christ and an Old Testament anticipation of baptism. Pace Gill, It most certainly was a typological sacrament.

The next covenant is that made with Abraham and his seed, on which great stress is laid, Gen. xvii.10–14; and this is said to be the grand turning point on which the issue of the controversy very much depends; and that if Abraham’s covenant, which included his infant children, and gave them a right to circumcision, was not the covenant of grace; then it is confessed, that the main ground is taken away, on which the right to infants to baptism is asserted; and consequently the principal arguments in support of the doctrine are overturned.

This was the heart of Gill’s argument. He has set the scene and now he would plunge the dagger into the heart of that lingering Romansh corruption infant baptism (see his treatise on this very claim). Gill was right. Great stress is laid on this covenant because Scripture itself lays great stress on it. We may even speak of an Abrahamic paradigm for redemption. Since I have already explained the centrality of the Abrahamic covenant in redemptive history (see the linked essay) and in the Heidelcast series on covenant and baptism, I will brief here. If we consider, e.g., John 8:56; , Matthew 3:9; 22:2; Acts 3;13, 22, 26, 39; Romans 4; 9:6; Galatians 3 and 4; Hebrews 2:16; 6:13–15; chapters 7–10; 11:8; 11:17 we see how our Lord himself and the New Testament generally looked at Abraham and, by implication, the Abrahamic covenant. They did so with good reason. The OT prophets consistently appealed to Abraham as the pattern of God’s promise of salvation. Jeremiah 31:31–33 is by no means the only example of the way the OT prophets appealed to and appropriated the Abrahamic promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

Thus, Gill sought to kill the paedobaptist appeal to Abraham because he knew the power of the argument. If Abraham is the paradigm for the covenant of grace, the way that God administers outwardly his salvation to his elect and if that paradigm includes both believers and their children and if that pattern is not revoked in the New Testament—remember we have already noted Gill’s fondness for the argumentum e silentio then it is essential for his argument that he get rid of Abraham, as it were. So he does:

Now, that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant, of works, but rather a covenant of works will soon be proved; and if so, then the main ground of infants’ baptism is taken away, and its principal arguments in favor of it overturned: and that it is not the covenant of grace is clear, —1. From being its never so called, nor by any name which shows it to be such; but the covenant of circumcision, Acts vii.8. Now, nothing is more opposite to one another than circumcision and grace; circumcision is a work of the law, which they that sought to be justified by fell from grace, Gal v.2–4. Nor can this covenant be the same we are now under, which is a new covenant or a new administration of the covenant of grace, since it abolished and no more in being and force. —2. It appears to be a covenant of works, and not of grace; since it was to be kept by men, under a severe penalty. Abraham was to keep it, and his seed after him; something was to be done by them, their flesh to be circumcised, and a penalty was annexed, in case of disobedience or neglect; such a soul was to be cut off from his people; all which shows it to be, not a covenant of grace, but of works….

He continues by adducing several more proofs but one can see the trajectory of his argument clearly enough. As I say, Gill’s appeal to the silence of Scripture, to which he appealed repeatedly (beyond the material quoted here) should put to rest the Baptist objection that the Reformed rely on arguments from silence. The question is not whether arguments from silence but which and why they ought to be believed.

From both theological and rhetorical points of view, Gill’s argument is fascinating. At first he flatly dispenses with the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of works. He argues that at length in this section of the work. By his logic the New Testament Lord’s Supper must be covenant of works since there were evidently sanctions for its abuse too (see 1 Corinthians 11:30. That, of course, is absurd since in Gill’s view the New Covenant is nothing but a covenant of grace, indeed, it is the covenant of grace. Most of the time in this work Gill speaks of the covenant of grace being “exhibited” under the types and shadows and his intent is entirely clear. The covenant that God made in Genesis 17:10, to be a God to believing Abraham and to his children, was nothing but a covenant of works, a “do this and live” covenant.

It is essential to the Baptist view to turn Abraham into Moses. Some of the OPBs (see part 1 of this series) sometimes spoke of Abraham as the Reformed did (and do) but resolved the tension they created in their own system through an appeal to eschatology. Others, however, as we have been observing, who belong to what I have been calling the PB tradition (see part 1) avoid creating that tension within their reading of redemptive history by overtly (rather than merely implicitly) regarding the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of works.

The chasm between the Baptist reading of redemptive history and way of reading Scripture widens.

Part 6: Engaging with John Spilsbury


  1. “Now, that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, but rather a covenant of works, will soon be proved…”JOHN GILL

    Yikes! And getting rid of Abraham, he did.

  2. I think it’s important to keep in mind the central claim of Particular Baptists (particularly of the 17th century) when it comes to covenant theology: the Old Testament provides types and shadows of the covenant of grace that comes to be ratified in Christ’s blood, A.K.A. the New Covenant. Granted, Gill is characteristically strong in making Abraham seem as a type of the covenant of works (although I think it’s possible to read him as emphasizing the works principle in Abraham only insofar as circumcision is concerned), but the broad thesis must be kept in mind that the OT covenants in some way point to the New Covenant in a movement from shadow to substance of the covenant of grace.
    To say that Baptists lump Abraham and Moses together as mere instances of the covenant of works is detrimentally unnuanced, in my opinion, given the positive regard for these types as signifiers of grace (albeit mixed with familial and national elements). To say “It is essential to the Baptist view to turn Abraham into Moses” may be true of dispensational Baptists, who drive the strongest possible wedge of discontinuity between the testaments, but is not true of Particular Baptists. I don’t see PBs saying much more than “the New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed,” which is simply Augustine.

    • Now, that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, but rather a covenant of works, will soon be proved…

      Nor can this covenant be the same we are now under, which is a new covenant or a new administration of the covenant of grace, since it abolished and no more in being and force. —2. It appears to be a covenant of works, and not of grace; since it was to be kept by men, under a severe penalty.

      There’s not much ambiguity in this. This is not a mere aspect the Abrahamic covenant. His whole argument here is that admission of infants to the visible covenant community is ipso facto a covenant of works.

  3. It would seem that the meaning of circumcision may be key in understanding differences between the Baptists and the Reformed. Where the Reformed see circumcision as the gracious sign confirming the promise God made to Abraham, that God alone would keep the stipulations of the covenant and suffer the consequences of covenant breaking for Abraham and all his covenant breaking children, the Baptists see it as a sign that obligates all of Abraham’s circumcised children to keep the whole law. That seems to be how they join Abraham and Moses because they see the law of Moses as the full disclosure of the obligations of circumcision. Baptism cannot be the new covenant replacement of circumcision, in their view, because the new covenant is synonymous with the covenant grace where all the Mosaic laws, except the moral law have been abrogated. Therefore to initiate unbelieving children into the covenant on the basis that baptism is the unbloody equivalent of circumcision, is to obligate them to keep the whole law of Moses, which would make the new covenant/covenant of grace into a covenant of works that requires obedience to the whole law of Moses. I think that this may be the main reason why Baptists are so strongly opposed to infant baptism. That is why it is vital for them to deny that the Abrahamic covenant is a covenant of grace, but rather a covenant of works, through circumcision, that links it to, and obligates keeping the complete law of Moses. That seems to be almost a convincing argument against infant baptism, except that Col. 2:11-15 identifies baptism as the circumcision of Christ!

  4. I remember talking with a PB friend about the covenant of Grace and Abraham and for him to prove that the Abrahamic covenant *was not* the covenant of grace he pointed (as I understand Gill does too) to Gen. 17:14. “See that it is not grace but works: ‘do this and live'”. A PB pastor also used this verse to argue that since the abrahamic covenant *had conditions* then it could not be a covenant of grace. Yet they say since it contains aspects of grace then it is a ‘dichotomous covenant’.

    It seems to me that they ‘frame’/model the AC into/using the MC. So I believe that in that sense they turn Abraham into Moses.

    • Gavin,

      Can you elaborate please? Are you suggesting that it’s not possible to discern his covenant theology from his systematic theology or from his treatise on baptism (to which I referred)?



  5. I am Baptist. I am truly enjoying the 1689 engagement. I have long loved Gill and don’t think him genuinely hyper-C… but he missed this boat big time.

    I have in recent years tried to describe a parallel between the pairings of Abraham / Mosaic Israel and Christ / New Testament churches (meaning the local and visible sort).

    That is to say circumcision was given to those born into the correct Abrahamic lineage (or also proselyte converts). This was foundational to and prerequisite for admission into the visible community, but required continued obedience to maintain this external relationship. In parallel, baptism is given to those born (again #credo) into the correct lineage. This is prerequisite for admission into the visible community, but requires continued obedience to maintain this external relationship.

    I’ve never been wholly comfortable with the reformed language of being united to Christ in an external sense. It seems clearer to just say united to the visible church. To speak of being united to Christ apart from regeneration and faith is as much a mystery to me as conflating Abraham and Moses.

    • David,

      FWIW, if you’ll check out the linked article and/or the booklet, you’ll see that the Reformed don’t confess an “external union” with Christ. In re the mystical union, that is wrought by the Spirit through faith.

      We do have, however, membership in the visible covenant community (the visible church). We speak of an external membership in the covenant of grace but only those who are elect, who’ve been given new life and true faith are united to Christ. We don’t have two levels of union with Christ.

  6. RSC, forgive me if I have misrepresented. Thanks for the clarification.
    That said… in my head to be in the COG is to be in Christ. So while very close in many respects, defining COG is a dividing line here, but if I am honest it’s at this level of detail that I am not settled at best and dangerously close to inconsistent, so no casting of stones here.
    Abraham is not Moses. Amen from a Baptist.


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