This Is Not Reformed Theology (2)

Apparently there is a conference among Particular Baptists occurring this week. Someone at the conference tweeted this quotation

“Once the Abrahamic Covenant gives birth to the New Covenant, it ceases” (source)

A brief as this remark is it is clarifying of the substantive differences between some Particular Baptist readings of the history of redemption, covenant theologies, and ways of interpreting Scripture and those of the Reformed churches. I have addressed these questions at great length (see the resources) in a couple of essays, e.g., Engaging with 1689 and One Important Difference Between The Reformed And Some Particular Baptists: God The Son Was In, With, And Under The Types And Shadows.

The notion that the Abrahamic covenant ceased with the inauguration of the New Covenant is not Reformed theology. The Reformed churches all confess that the New Covenant is the new administration of the covenant of grace, including the Abrahamic covenant. Now, the Reformed churches may all be wrong (I doubt that) and we may need to be enlightened by some (or all) of our Baptist friends. That is a discussion for another time. What is pertinent to this discussion is to note how the Reformed churches speak about Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant.

We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins. Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, he established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign. It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In this way he signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God. This does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan. So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the “new man” and stripping off the “old,” with all its works. 78 For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it— for we cannot be born twice. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives. For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ” (Belgic Confession, art. 34)

In this article the Reformed churches reply to two errors: that of the Romanists who confuse the sign of baptism with the thing signified (salvation) and that of the Anabaptists, who reject the substantial continuity between the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace with the New Covenant. In this way, our Particular Baptist friends, who typically and vehemently reject any theological or historical connection with the Anabaptists (see my essay, “House of Cards” for a more thorough response to this complaint), obviously agree with the Anabaptists as to the validity of infant baptism, who may be baptized, and, in this instance why. Rightly or wrongly (that is another discussion) the Reformed churches baptize infants on basis of the substantial continuity between the promise of the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant. According to the Reformed churches, the New Covenant is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant. This is why we “detest the error of the Anabaptists.” Implicitly, to the degree the Baptists partake of the same error, we also detest the error of the Baptists. In response to both we confess, “We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.” Circumcision was instituted under Abraham, not Moses. See Genesis chapter 17. As we understand the history and development of the covenant of grace the initiation of children into the visible covenant community did not end in the New Covenant because it is part of the substance of the covenant of grace. What was accidental or temporary was bloodshed. The land promise was temporary because the Scriptures tell us that the land was a type of heaven. Circumcision was a type of Christ (Col 2:11–12). The bloodshed of circumcision looked forward to the death of Christ. The water of baptism looks back to the death of Christ (see also Romans chapter 6 on this). They are both external (outward) administrations of the same covenant of grace.

We say the same thing in Heidelberg Catechism 74:

74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit  who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.

The first ground to which the Reformed churches point, when explaining infant baptism, is the substantial continuity between the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace, and the New Covenant. By contrast, our Baptist friend is doing is what Baptists do: turning Abraham into Moses. By this I mean that they treat the Abrahamic covenant as if it were the Mosaic covenant. According the Reformed the Abrahamic covenant is not identical to the Mosaic. Again, this is a longer discussion, which I have pursued in other essays. See the resources for more on the differences between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. By We do not appeal to the Mosaic covenant. We recognize that the Mosaic covenant, though an administration of the covenant of grace, was temporary in a way that the Abrahamic is not. Insofar as the Mosaic covenant, the Old Covenant, was intentionally temporary, obsolete, fading, and inferior, to that degree the Mosaic covenant, the Old Covenant, may be said to have ceased. We recognize this temporary aspect of the Mosaic covenant when we speak of its abrogation or the expiration of the ceremonial and judicial laws (e.g., Westminster Confession 7.4). We do not speak this way about the Abrahamic covenant.

We recognize that the Scriptures explicitly describe the Mosaic covenant, i.e., the “Old Covenant” (so 2 Cor 3:14) “obsolete.” The argument in Hebrews 8 is that the New Covenant is superior to the Old, Mosaic covenant. This is John Owen’s argument in his commentary on Hebrews (see the resources). The Abrahamic covenant is not the “Old Covenant.” It is a typological administration of the covenant of grace. The sign of “the covenant” to which the Reformed churches appeal in Heidelberg 74 was circumcision under Abraham (and later, Moses, and David etc) and it is baptism under the New Covenant. The promise to Abraham was: “I will be God to you and to your children” (Gen 17:7; Jer 30:22) and it was this promise that Peter repeated in Acts 2:39: “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The Mosaic covenant is fading (2 Cor 3:7). The Abrahamic covenant is not. Paul invokes the Abrahamic covenant of grace to explain the New Covenant: “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:1–3). Paul was invoking the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. That promise was to Abraham and to his children. Paul continues, “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom 4:11b–12). As the Reformed churches read Romans 4 it does not seem to us that the Abrahamic covenant has expired. This is also how we understand Galatians chapters 3 and 4. There, we say, Paul’s argument is that the Abrahamic covenant is prior to the Mosaic and permanent in a way that the Mosaic is not.

As a matter of history and confession, the teaching of the Reformed churches is quite incompatible with the claim that the Abrahamic covenant ceased.

RESOURCES

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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16 comments

  1. Thank you as always for keeping us informed. As someone who grew up in the Assemblies of God and who now is a member of an OPC church and is URC at heart (I love the three forms) I am truly grateful for the Heidelblog!

  2. To be a God unto thee In this single word we are plainly taught that this was a spiritual covenant, not confirmed in reference to the present life only; but one from which Abraham might conceive the hope of eternal salvations so that being raised even to heaven, he might lay hold of solid and perfect bliss. For those whom God adopts to himself, from among a people — seeing that he makes them partakers of his righteousness and of all good things — he also constitutes heirs of celestial life. Let us then mark this as the principal part of the covenant, that He who is the God of the living, not of the dead, promises to be a God to the children of Abraham. It follows afterwards, in the way of augmentation of the grant, that he promised to give them the land. I confess, indeed, that something greater and more excellent than itself was shadowed forth by the land of Canaan; yet this is not at variance with the statement, that the promise now made was an accession to that primary one, ‘I will be thy God.’ Now, although God again affirms, as before, that He will give the land to Abraham himself, we nevertheless know, that Abraham never possessed dominion over it; but the holy man was contented with his title to it alone, although the possession of it was not granted him; and, therefore, he calmly passed from his earthly pilgrimage into heaven. God again repeats that He will be a God to the posterity of Abraham, in order that they may not settle upon earth, but may regard themselves as trained for higher things.

    For, at length, by the coming of Christ, circumcision was substantially confirmed, so that it should endure forever, and that the covenant which God had before made, should be ratified. Moreover, lest the changing of the visible sign should perplex any one, let that renovation of the world, of which I have spoken, be kept in mind; which renovation — notwithstanding some interposed variety — has perpetuated those things which would otherwise have been fading. Therefore, although the use of circumcision has ceased; yet it does not cerise to be an everlasting, or perpetual covenant, if only Christ be regarded as the Mediator; who, though the sign be changed, has confirmed the truth. And that, by the coming of Christ, external circumcision ceased, is plain from the words of Paul; who not only teaches that we are circumcised by the death of Christy spiritually, and not through the carnal sign: but who expressly substitutes baptism for circumcision; (Colossians 2:11;) and truly baptism could not succeed circumcision, without taking it away. Therefore in the next chapter he denies that there is any difference between circumcision and uncircumcision; because, at that time, the thing was indifferent, and of no importance. Whence we refute the error of those, who think that circumcision is still in force among the Jews, as if it were a peculiar symbol of the nation, which never ought to be abrogated. I acknowledge, indeed, that it was permitted to them for a time, until the liberty obtained by Christ should be better known; but though permitted, it by no means retained its original force. For it would be absurd to be initiated into the Church by two different signs; of which the one should testify and affirm that Christ was come, and the other should shadow him forth as absent.

    John Calvin on Genesis 17 – Christ is the substance of the eternal covenant of grace

  3. Do different covenant theologies necessarily lead to different Gospels?
    Do confessing (1689) Baptists preach a different gospel from the reformed?

    • Theo,

      What I’ve learned is that the two different systems, Particular Baptist and Reformed theology, are built on two rather different ways of reading Scripture, two different ways of understanding Redemptive history. The differences are subtle but profound. I didn’t pay much attention to the 2nd London for a long time. I just assumed that what I’d read/been told was true that the differences weren’t major. I was wrong. When I started paying attention and when I was pushed by some folks who are working through the issues I began to see that.

      That said, I think the PBs seem to accept our soteriology, i.e., the application of redemption by the Holy Spirit. They have our ordo salutis (order of redemption).

      Their covenant theology, however, is not ours. They don’t share our view of the external administration of the covenant of grace. From our POV, they don’t have a doctrine of external administration–that’s sort of the point of being Baptist.

      So, I want to recognize the points of contact and the differences.

      • There’s some confusion about my use of “apparently” above. When I wrote I didn’t have direct knowledge of a conference but inferred from the comments that there was a conference. As a joke someone apparently registered me:

        I wasn’t being dismissive.

  4. Dr Clark,

    If the reformed and the PBs share the same soteriology, am I correct to assume that they preach the same gospel?

    If this is the case, then, despite all other differences, shouldn’t the reformed consider the PBs as their brothers in Christ? (And vice versa)

    • Theo,

      This is not how the Reformed have historically looked at such issues. Your phrase, “despite all other differences” carries a lot of freight.

      There are two sets of considerations or sets of judgments, ecclesiastical (public) and private.

      Publicly, the Reformed churches do not recognize the Particular Baptist congregations as true churches. This is because, in Belgic Conf. art 29, we confess three marks of the true church:

      1) the pure preaching of the gospel;
      2) the pure administration of the sacraments;
      3) the use of church discipline.

      The Particular Baptists confess the gospel with us but they do not affirm with us the teaching of Canons of Dort 1:17, the at promises of the covenant of grace made to Abraham are for believers and their children today. Thus, they will not apply the promises of the covenant of grace to my children or agree that the promises of the covenant of grace are for them until they are above to persuade a Baptist congregation that they are regenerate. For us, this is, or should be a serious thing.

      By our lights the Baptists do not have a pure administration of the sacraments. We condemn their denial to covenant children of the sacrament of admission. We condemn their practice of re-baptizing previously baptized Christians. [We recognize that they do not accept our baptism of infants as valid, hence we’re at loggerheads].

      Formally, the Particular Baptists make the same error as the Anabaptists and for similar reasons. Thus, insofar as we are governed by the Word as confessed by the churches, it is not aa simple thing to set aside our covenant theology, our hermeneutic, our doctrine of the church and sacraments. Further, our Baptist friends regard us as unbaptized, which further complicates the matter of mutual brotherhood. Formally, they have placed us outside of the covenant of grace (as unbaptized). This is not a small thing.

      Privately, however, I have many Baptist friends whom I know to love the Lord Jesus, to share in the same gospel, and whom I trust. I’ve recommended friends to some of their congregations, which, though lacking one of the marks I regard as safe harbors for needy sinners. I don’t impose my private judgment on the church or on anyone else. Since this is a matter that is not clearly confessed, it is a matter of freedom.

      Remember, my intent in this essay is not to declare that Baptists are not Christians or that we have nothing in common with them but to clarify the issue of the relations between the Particular Baptists and the Reformed tradition.

  5. Thank you for the clarification regarding the use of the word apparently. Just to be clear, you had no knowledge of the conference prior to finding out about it this week? Is that correct?

  6. I don’t happen to think, that a “God has committed himself to supply the elect with the grace to seek God in prayer, which brings down the additional grace to meet the condition of faith, that brings down the additional grace to meet the condition of holiness, that brings the additional grace of final glory’ is a PB concurrence with the Reformed on the ordo salutis, but it is a synergistic ordo salutis instead.

  7. Yes Dr. Clark (FG 2012, p. 248). The sequencing is that of an ordo salutis, but the subjects including acts of the person make it different, I think.

  8. And yet Reformed churches continue to allow particular baptist ministers on the pulpit, admit them to communion etc. If I may, what is the point of being confessionally reformed when we don’t make the distinction? Where is the discipline in all this? I ask this rhetorically, but yet with a deep sense of sadness. These questions should not have to be asked, and it wasn’t that long ago they wouldn’t have been. How quickly the tide turns when we don’t pay attention

  9. To whom it may concern. R Scott Clark never registered for our conference, but we created a name tag for him. On Oct 27 I received a text from Scott Clark inquiring about our conference. I forwarded Scott’s email address to our registrar. Our registrar prints name tags for all who have registered and a few late inquirers in case they show up. I thought the Scott Clark who texted me was R Scott Clark so I told the registrar it was R Scott Clark. I didn’t realize the Scott Clark who texted me was not R Scott Clark. I was able to figure out what happened when I texted Scott Clark asking for his email address. When he replied, it was the same email address given to me last week. That’s when I knew what happened. So, mea culpa! PS: I just got off the phone with R Scott Clark. I explained the above to him. He laughed. Pax

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