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