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By Farther Steps – Part 1


A Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology

From Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, ed. Richard C. Barcellos, RBAP, 2014. Copyright © 2014 Richard C. Barcellos. All rights reserved. (Used with permission)

Covenant theology is at the core of Reformed thought. In the seventeenth century, Particular Baptists developed their own understanding of covenant theology. Their view was at the same time similar and distinct from their fellow paedobaptist contemporaries. In this chapter, we will present seventeenth-century Particular Baptist federalism.[1] We will use the following headings: 1) The Particular Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Works; 2) The Particular Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Grace; 3) The Particular Baptist understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant; 4) The Particular Baptist understanding of the Mosaic Covenant; and 5) The Particular Baptist understanding of the New Covenant. A brief conclusion will close our study.

The Particular Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Works

The seventeenth-century Particular Baptists endorsed the broadly accepted view among Reformed theologians concerning the covenant of works. This particular view considered that a covenant was made with Adam, representing his posterity, in the beginning identified as the covenant of works. It consisted of two elements: if Adam obeyed, he and his posterity after him would have attained eternal life and would have been sealed in justice; on the other side, his disobedience would be the entrance of death and place Adam and all of his posterity under condemnation. The covenant of works provided no way to expiate the offense. In Reformed theology, the covenant of works is seen as the foundation for the “retributive” justice of God, whereby obedience begets blessing and disobedience brings malediction. It is the covenant of works that founded the principle “do this and you shall live” (Lev. 18:5; Gal 3:12) as well as the principle “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Under the covenant of works, eternal life cannot be given freely, it must be earned. But now, because of sin, the covenant of works is ineffective in giving life; it can only bring death (Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3).

Before the fall, man benefited from a relationship with his Creator wherein, by virtue of the covenant of works, God was his God. While remaining under the obligation of obeying God because of this covenant, fallen man lost his covenantal privileges which ensured him of God’s favour and found himself, from then on, under God’s wrath. While God remained God for all men even after the fall, sin made it so that he was no longer their God in a favorable covenantal connection. John Owen summarizes the Puritan conception of the covenant of works after the fall as follows: “And man continued under an obligation to dependence on God and subjection to his will in all things. …But that especial relation of mutual interest by virtue of the first covenant ceased between them.”[2]

The abundant references to the covenant of works in the Baptists’ writings leave no doubt concerning their shared conception of it with other Reformed theologians. It is, however, remarkable to note that the 2LCF removed much of the explicit mention of the covenant of works that was to be found in the Westminster and Savoy Confessions.[3] The only place where it is directly referenced in the Particular Baptists’ Confession is in chapter 20, paragraph 1.[4] This ought not to be interpreted as an indication that they rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works; they did not. Also, certain formulations that can be found in these sister Confessions were rejected in the 2LCF to avoid ambiguous wording.[5] Thus, we should not conclude that the Particular Baptists rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works in their Confession.

The Baptists’ view of the origin, nature, and function of the covenant of works was the same as the rest of the Puritans. However, they had a divergent opinion regarding the relationship between the covenant of works and the Old Covenant. Most of the paedobaptist theologians of the seventeenth century understood that “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14) simply meant not to be under the covenant of works, but under the covenant of grace. For example, Herman Witsius explains that to be “under the curse of the law” (Gal. 3.10) does not mean to be under the Old Covenant, but under the covenant of works: “But many things prove that nothing is meant by the curse, but the curse of the Covenant of Works.”[6]

The Westminster and Savoy Confessions call the covenant of works “the first covenant” and the covenant of grace “the second covenant.”[7] This terminology is ambiguous because the New Testament makes a comparison between a first and second covenant, not to designate the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, but in comparing the Old and New Covenants (cf. Heb. 8-9). This understanding of the paedobaptists did not consider the Old and New Covenants as being antithetical. John Ball, for example, writes, “Some make the Old and New Testament, as the Covenant of works and grace, opposite in substance and kind, and not in degree alone: and that to introduce an unfound distinction.”[8]

The Baptists accepted, with no problem, that the word law, used as an antithesis to the word grace, would refer to the covenant of works. Paragraph 2 of Chapter 7 of the 2LCF reads, “Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall…” The Baptists, however, refused to deny the continuity between the covenant of works and the Old Covenant. For them, the law/grace antithesis reflected the Old/New Covenant antithesis. This understanding is obvious in this quote from Benjamin Keach:

Though evident it is that God afterwards more clearly and formally repeated this Law of Works to the People of Israel […] though not given in that Ministration of it for Life, as before it was to Adam; yet as so given, it is by St. Paul frequently called the Old Covenant, and the Covenant of Works, which required perfect Obedience of all that were under it.[9]

Keach and the other Baptists believed that the covenant of works was reaffirmed in the Old Covenant, but for different reasons than when it was initially given to Adam. Contrary to most of the paedobaptists, the Particular Baptists understood the New Testament law/grace contrast as a contrast between the Old and New Covenants. For these paedobaptists, the expression “the curse of the law” referred directly to the covenant of works, while for the Baptists, it referred to the covenant of works, but as being reaffirmed or republished in the Old Covenant. Therefore, in order to maintain unity and continuity between the Old and New Covenants, these paedobaptists had to reject the unity and continuity between the covenant of works and the Old Covenant. The distinctiveness of the Particular Baptists’ view regarding the covenant of works resided in the relationship between this covenant and the Old Covenant as being similar rather than distinct. We will develop this point further when we address the nature of the Old Covenant.

… Continue reading part 2

* Pascal Denault, Th.M., is pastor of the Evangelical Reformed Baptist Church, St. Jerome, Quebec, Canada.

[1] This chapter is an abbreviated version of the author’s published work The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013).

[2] John Owen, “An Exposition of Hebrews 8:6-13: Wherein, the nature and differences between the Old and New Covenants is discovered” in Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 281.

[3] Here are the paragraphs of the 2LCF where the references to the covenant of works were removed. 6.1; 7.2; 19.1; those that make reference to the covenant of works without naming it: 4.3; 7.2; 19.1, 2; and those where the expression “covenant of works” can be found: 19.6 (2x); 20.1.

[4] “Covenant of works” is used twice in 19:6; however, it does not refer to the covenant of works made with Adam, but rather to the concept of such a covenant.

[5] For a more complete discussion of this topic and the ambiguities in question cf. Samuel Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Darlington, UK and Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 1989), 94-96. In his course, Baptist Symbolics, Dr. James Renihan explains that the focal point of chapter 7 of the 2LCF is not exactly covenant theology, broadly speaking, but rather the salvation of the elect. This chapter was edited so that all of the emphasis was put on the plan of salvation.

[6] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg CA: The den Dulk Christian Foundation, Reprinted 1990), 1:359.

[7] Cf. Chapter 7, paragraphs 2 and 4 of these confessions.

[8] John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (Dingwall, UK: Peter and Rachel Reynolds, Reprinted 2006 [1645]), 93.

[9] Benjamin Keach, The Display of Glorious Grace: Or, The Covenant of Peace Opened. In Fourteen Sermons (London: Printed by S. Bridge, 1698), 15.

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