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.
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- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
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- Engaging With 1689
- One Important Difference Between The Reformed And Some Particular Baptists: God The Son Was In, With, And Under The Types And Shadows
- This Is Not Reformed Theology (1)
- Resources On Defining Reformed
- Resources On The Unity Of The Covenant Of Grace
- Resources On The Role Of Abraham In Redemptive History
- A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology And Infant Baptism
- “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89.
- Baptism and Circumcision According to Colossians 2:11–12
- John Owen Was Not A Baptist
- John Owen Was Not A Baptist (Part 2)
- Update: John Owen Is Still Not A Baptist
- John Owen Defended Infant Baptism
- John Owen: The New Covenant Is The Abrahamic Covenant Renewed
- John Owen On The Continuity Of The Abrahamic Covenant With the New Covenant