Now, I want to remind you, despite how you once fully knew it, that Jesus, after saving a people out from the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe, 6so too those angels who did not keep themselves in their first condition but left their proper dwelling he has kept until the great day in eternal chains under darkness, 7likewise Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which in similar manner committed sexual immorality and went after another kind of flesh, present an example by suffering the penalty of everlasting fire.
Jude 5–7 (author’s translation)
Part four of this series argued that Jude’s claim that Jesus saved the people from Egypt provides an exegetical entry point to reflect upon the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace, showing that the Son was active in his office as mediator during the Old Testament period. This part delves further into the doctrine of the covenant of grace by exploring the distinction between its substance and administrations, arguing that among the community wherein God distributes his means of grace, only those with real faith in Christ truly partake of his benefits.
Some defining of terms will clear the ground. Although various Reformed theologians have formulated it differently, I am partial to James Ussher’s explanation of the covenant of grace’s substance: “What then is the sum of the covenant of grace? That God will be our God and give us Life everlasting in Christ, if we receive him, being freely by his Father offered unto us.”1 Other explanations highlight the more basic spiritual blessing from God’s covenant with Abraham that God promised “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). Although true, Ussher’s formulation gets us more specifically to how God is God to his people, namely in Christ who provides the blessings of reconciliation with God and renewal in the Christian life. God is not God to sinner abstractly but only through Jesus Christ. So the substance of the covenant of grace is Christ and his benefits.
The administration of the covenant of grace is the way that the substance, Christ and his benefits, is applied. It is, crassly, a delivery system. On the one hand, the internal administration is faith. Christ and his benefits are truly received only by faith in Jesus. The internal administration has been the same throughout redemptive history since Adam’s Fall. On the other hand, the external administration is whatever outward means of grace that God appointed for a particular covenant to be the ordinances he uses to create, confirm, and cultivate faith. In our new covenant era, the external administration in the church are Word, sacrament, and prayer. During the old economy, however, God used promises, types, sacrifices, and other shadowy ordinances to perform that same function that Word, sacrament, and prayer have for us today. For example, the Mosaic sacrifices were means of grace delivering the substance of the covenant of grace, not at all because those animal sacrifices in themselves procured the forgiveness of sin but because true believers understood the Messiah’s sacrifice through those animal offerings and trusted in his future work.
It is possible, then, to participate in that external administration, receiving and participating in the outward means of grace, without truly partaking of the substance of the covenant of grace through the internal administration of faith in Christ. Although Baptists have contested the Reformed position especially on this issue, this essay argues that Jude shows how the internal-external distinction for the covenant’s substance and administration continues in the New Testament era.
Jude’s View of the Church and the Covenants
When Jude wrote that “Jesus, after saving a people out from the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5), he established two points for our topic of the substance-administration distinction, in addition to what we already saw concerning how his claim presumes the unity of salvation in Christ across the Testaments.
On the one hand, he established that faith is the true condition for receiving Christ’s saving blessings. His warning about those whom Jesus destroyed never appealed to good works as the reason for this judgement. Rather, Jude said explicitly that Jesus destroyed “those who did not believe.” So, Jesus does not initially save us by faith, only to re-examine us about how many works we perform for him concerning final salvation. No, Jesus will destroy unbelievers. We should state clearly then that Christ had a relationship to some within the covenant community by the internal administration of faith.
On the other hand, Jude also established that Christ had an external relationship to the whole covenant community, which was not saving for those who did not have faith in Christ. Participation in the outward means of grace saves no one unless true faith takes hold of Christ through those ordinances. Nonetheless, Christ was the subject of the whole people’s outward relationship to the Lord. Within that external administration of the covenant, there were true believers and there were apostates who never truly trusted in Christ.
Clearly, Jude indicated that Jesus was involved in that external relationship to his people in the Old Testament period. So, Jude eliminates the idea that God’s Old Testament people were about earthly types, not related to Christ through their own covenant. Jude said Jesus was the one to whom Israel related under the Mosaic covenant.
Less explicitly but just as emphatically, Jude taught that this principle continues to apply to the church in the new covenant. This point is less explicit but equally emphatic because it was the direct purpose of Jude’s letter. He was writing to correct this church concerning how some in their midst were not true believers, evidenced by their committed antinomianism. He appealed to Jesus destroying the unbelievers among the covenant community, not as some mere historical observation, but obviously as a warning about what Jesus might do to the unbelievers participating in this new covenant community.
Jude’s address to this church confirms this understanding of his view of the covenant community. He wrote to them as “the called ones, who have been loved by God the Father and are certainly kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1). The three key words here—“called,” “loved,” and “kept”—were all designations for Israel in Isaiah’s servant songs (Is 41:9; 42:1, 6; 43:4; 48:12, 15; 49:1, 8; 54:6).2 Interpretively going one direction in redemptive history, Jude applied categories from Israel’s status as God’s external covenant community to the new covenant church. In the other direction, Jude applied Christ’s role as head and mediator of God’s people to his people under the old economy. Throughout redemptive history, therefore, including today, Jesus has had an external relationship to the whole people and an internal relationship specifically to believers.
Confirmation from Hebrews
Hebrews 6:1–8 confirms the exact situation that Jude described, articulating realities concerning maturity for believers, much like Jude:
Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God.8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
In Hebrews 6:2, the ESV says one issue was instruction about “washings.” The Greek word behind “washings” is βαπτισμοις, simply transliterated as “baptisms” but translated otherwise only to avoid the implication that this passage teaches a Reformed ecclesiology. Hebrews 6:4–5 then list benefits of church life. In the ancient church, “being enlightened” was one way to refer to baptism. Justin Martyr, who was one of the very first Christian writers, argued, “Now this washing of baptism is called enlightenment, since those who learn of these things are the ones being enlightened in understanding.”3 Baptism symbolizes our renewal, and Hebrews has just explicitly referred to baptisms. People in the covenant taste the heavenly gift, and tasting obviously suggests the Lord’s Supper. The Spirit is at work in the church, preaching of the Word goes out to all who are present to hear, and these things are the means that God uses to manifest the power of the age to come.
The internal-external issue comes to the fore as verse 6 says that someone can take part in all these things and still fall away, namely because they made full use of the administration but never partook of the substance by true faith. The illustration in verses 7–8 proves that perspective, since the same rain falls on the land generally but produces good and bad crops, fruit but also thorns. It would then be farfetched to say that this being enlightened was true conversion because being truly converted by the Holy Spirit does not produce bad crops unto destruction. We all still produce some rubbish, but this is despite, not because, of our regeneration. This enlightening is an objective feature of church life that God uses to have some affect upon us, namely baptism.
So, God’s blessings in church life—hearing the Word, even receiving both sacraments if someone has managed to make a credible profession of faith despite not truly believing, fellowship with the saints—are all true blessings. These things themselves are God’s real gifts to us. For some, those blessings sprout into genuine faith and grow into further godliness. For others, continual use of those gifts, that external administration, will eventually reveal the true colors of unbelief as those thorns sprout. They, however, never truly partook of the substance, salvation by faith in Christ. As 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Scripture plainly teaches that we can participate in the administration of the covenant without truly partaking of the substance by genuine faith.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1. James Ussher, A Body of Divinitie (London, 1645), 159.
2. Richard Bauckham, Jude–2 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 25; Gene L. Green, Jude and 2 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 47–48; Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 38–39.
3. Justin Martyr, First Apology, §61, in Jacques Paul Migne (ed.), Patrologia Cursus Completus: Series Graeca, 161 vols. (Paris, 1857–66), 6:421; and in Phillip Schaff (ed.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 volumes (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 1:183.
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