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By Farther Steps – Part 4


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)


The Particular Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Grace

The Baptist model: a covenant revealed progressively and formally concluded

The distinction between the revelation and the administration of the covenant of grace finds its whole meaning when the second element of Particular Baptist federalism is added to it, that is to say, the full revelation of the covenant of grace in the New Covenant. If the Westminster federalism can be summarized in one covenant under two administrations, that of the 2LCF would be one covenant revealed progressively and concluded formally under the New Covenant.

The Baptists believed that no covenant preceding the New Covenant was the covenant of grace. Before the arrival of the New Covenant, the covenant of grace was at the stage of promise. According to Benjamin Keach, the expression “the covenants of the promise” that can be found in Ephesians 2:12 refers back to the covenant of grace.[1] The promise in question was the covenant of grace. If we are talking about a promise, this implies that it was not yet accomplished and was not yet in the form of a testament or a covenant. The Baptists believed that the New Covenant was the accomplishment of the promise or, in other words, the accomplishment of the covenant of grace. This doctrine is expressed in the following way in the 2LCF, “This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam…and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.” The New Testament brings the full revelation of the covenant of grace since the New Covenant is its accomplishment. The Baptists considered that the New Covenant, and it alone, was the covenant of grace.[2]

John Spilsbury affirmed this notion, saying, “Again, it’s called the promise, and not the Covenant; and we know that every promise is not a covenant: there being a large difference between a promise and a covenant.”[3] Spilsbury speaks of the covenant of grace that God revealed to Abraham and he declares that at this stage, it was not yet a formal covenant, but a promise.

This distinction (revealed/concluded) summarized the difference between the covenant of grace in the Old Testament and the covenant of grace in the New Testament. In the Old, it was revealed, in the New, it was concluded (fully revealed according to the expression of the 2LCF). In doing the exegesis of Hebrews 8:6, John Owen concentrates on the verb νομοθετέω (“established”) to explain the difference between the covenant of grace before and after Jesus Christ. He arrives at the same theological conclusions of the Particular Baptists:

This is the meaning of the word νενομοθέτηται, …“reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance to the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, …was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar to it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship to the whole church, nothing being to be admitted in that respect but what belongs to it, and is appointed by it. The apostle intends this by νενομοθέτηται, the “legal establishment” of the New Covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. On this the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship in accordance with which it was administered. …When the New Covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not to it. And as these, they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed to it.[4]

Before the establishment (νενομοθέτηται) of the New Covenant, the covenant of grace did not have a concrete manifestation, any cultus or ceremony; it was not a covenant, but a promise revealed in an obscure manner under temporary types and shadows. Before Christ, the covenant of grace was announced; after Christ, it was decreed (νενομοθέτηται).

The covenant of grace, in this specific sense, was not given to Adam or to Abraham. Owen writes, “…this covenant, as here considered, is not understood the promise of grace given to Adam absolutely; nor that to Abraham, which contained the substance and matter of it, the grace exhibited in it, but not the complete form of it as a covenant.”[5] God did not conclude the covenant of grace with Adam any more than he did with Abraham; he revealed the substance of the covenant to them, but it was only concluded through Jesus Christ, in his sacrifice. Nehemiah Coxe affirms the same thing:

…in the wise counsel of God things were so ordered that the full revelation of the Covenant of Grace, the actual accomplishment of its great promises, and its being filled up with ordinances proper to it, should succeed the covenant made with Israel after the flesh.[6]

This understanding was radically different from that of the majority of paedobaptists in the seventeenth century.

Benjamin Keach ratifies this view of the covenant of grace when he describes its four sequences: 1) It was first decreed in past eternity, 2) It was secondly revealed to man after the Fall of Adam and Eve, 3) It was executed and confirmed by Christ in his death and resurrection, and 4) It becomes effective for its members when they are joined to Christ through faith.[7] The particularity of this historia salutis is the distinction between the revelation and the execution of the covenant of grace. Those who were saved before Christ were saved because of an oath; those who were saved after him were saved because of a covenant. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes this distinction when it bases the faith of believers in the Old Covenant on the oath that God made to Abraham (Heb. 5:17-18). However, the assurance of the believers of the New Covenant rests on a testament that is the achieved work of Christ (Heb. 7-9).

In order to clarify our comparison of paedobaptist and Particular Baptist federalism, here are two charts of their respective understandings.


So far we have seen two different understandings of the covenant of grace and of its relationship to the Old and New Covenants. The paedobaptist model perceived it as being under two successive administrations called the Old and New Covenants. By distinguishing between the covenant (substance) and its administrations (circumstance), paedobaptists established a foundation which was essential to them: they could maintain natural heirs and spiritual heirs within the same covenant, the first having part in the administration only and the second having part in both the administration and the substance of the covenant of grace. Paedobaptist federalism and ecclesiology were based on this distinction.

The Particular Baptist understanding rested on another fundamental distinction: one between the phase where the covenant of grace was revealed and the phase where it was concluded. The revealed phase corresponded to the period preceding the death of Christ and the concluded phase corresponded to the time that followed. Therefore, Particular Baptists considered that no other covenant, besides the New Covenant, was the covenant of grace. They still recognized that it had been revealed under all the covenants since the fall, but distinguished between the actual substance of these covenants and the covenant of grace itself.

These two formulations of federalism were at the root of all the divergences between the paedobaptists and the Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century. Their understandings of the covenant of grace led them toward different hermeneutics and theological formulations. We will now concentrate on the Particular Baptist understanding of the covenant of grace and see how through it they perceive the function of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants.

… Continue reading part 5

[1] Keach, The Display of Glorious Grace, 182.

[2] In seventeenth-century Particular Baptist theology, we find an equivalency between the covenant of grace and the New Covenant, and this, from the 1LCF, in paragraph 10, where we read, “Jesus Christ is made the mediator of the new and everlasting covenant of grace.” The expression “the new and everlasting covenant of grace” includes both the covenant of grace and the New Covenant. Thus, there is a distinction, without separation between the covenant of grace and the New Covenant.

[3] Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme, 26.

[4] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 173-74. Italics added.

[5] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 239.

[6] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 91.

[7] Benjamin Keach, The Everlasting Covenant (London: Printed for H. Barnard, 1693), 17.