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By Farther Steps – Part 6


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)


*Disclaimer: I post this article as it appears in RACH, but since it was published my view of the Mosaic Covenant evolved and I no longer believe that it was an absolute covenant of works for Christ offering eternal life. I rather believe that it was only topologically related to the covenant of works accomplished by Christ to merit eternal life. In itself, the Mosaic Covenant was earthly and bound to life in Canaan and was pointing toward heavenly realities.

The Particular Baptist understanding of the Mosaic Covenant

The Particular Baptists saw the Mosaic Covenant to be the elaborate form of the Old Covenant already in existence since Abraham and even before. Thomas Patient writes representatively, “But it is clear to me that in substance, the same covenant of ceremonial obedience which was given to Moses when the people came out of Egypt, the same was given to Adam’s generation.”[1]

19Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.  21Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. 23Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:19-24)

According to the Apostle, the goal of the covenant made with the physical posterity of Abraham (i.e. the Old Covenant or the law) was to lead to Christ. This end was accomplished in at least three ways, according to the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists: 1) by preserving both the messianic lineage and the covenant of grace; 2) by pointing typologically towards Christ; and 3) by imprisoning everything under sin in order that the only means to obtain the promised inheritance was through faith in Christ.

This third way of leading to Christ corresponded to the understanding the Baptists had of the nature of the Old Covenant. They saw it not as a covenant of grace, but as a covenant of works, that is, a covenant whose blessings or curses were determined by the obedience or the disobedience of its members.

Many paedobaptists viewed the Mosaic Covenant as being unconditional. However, certain paedobaptists, as well as most Particular Baptists, did not share this point of view since they saw the Old Covenant as a covenant of works (i.e., a conditional covenant). Let us examine the relationship between the Old Covenant and the covenant of works given to Adam.

The covenant of works concluded at creation required man’s perfect obedience. The blessing of this covenant depended entirely on the works or obedience of Adam. It provided no mercy or expiation in case of disobedience, but only death. This was not the case with the Old Covenant. The Scriptures present this covenant as being a covenant of redemption; the Old Covenant was based on a priesthood (Heb. 7:11). In a certain way, it was planned that the people would sin and that it would subsist nonetheless, thanks to the Levitical system of sacrifices. John Ball even relies on the fact that the Old Covenant planned for the forgiveness of sins, something the covenant of works could never have done, to prove that it was not a covenant of works, but of grace.[2]

Samuel Petto, who did consider the Mosaic Covenant as being conditional, recognized that it could not be strictly the same covenant of works established at creation:

[T]he covenant of works with the first Adam being violated, it was at an end as to the promising part; it promised nothing; after once it was broken, it remained in force only as to its threatening part, it menaced death to all the sinful seed of Adam, but admitted no other into it who were without sin, either to perform the righteousness of it, or to answer the penalty; it had nothing to do with an innocent person, after broken, for it was never renewed with man again, as before.[3]

Nothing, under the covenant of works, provided for the reparation of sin through the substitution of a righteous person. In this way, the Old Covenant was very different from the covenant of works. Nevertheless, under the Old Covenant, there was a principle belonging to the covenant made with Adam: “Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them” (Lev. 18:5).

How did the Particular Baptists, and certain paedobaptists along with them, conceive the nature of the Old Covenant if it was not the covenant of works, while being a covenant of works? What was the relationship between the covenant of works given to Adam and the Old Covenant made with Israel? Benjamin Keach affirms that there was, between the two of them, continuity but not uniformity:

True, there was another Edition or Administration of it [i.e., the covenant of works] given to Israel. which tho’ it was a covenant of works, i.e. Do this and live, yet it was not given by the Lord to the same End and Design, as the Covenant was given to our first parents, viz. It was not given to justifie them, or to give them eternal Life.[4]

A few years later, Keach published a collection of sermons on the covenant of grace in which he reiterated that the covenant of works was reaffirmed by the Old Covenant, but to a different end than at the time of its initial proclamation:

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.[5]

This specification constituted an essential characteristic of Particular Baptist federalism, specifically that the covenant of works, after the fall, was never again used for the descendents of Adam as “a law …that could impart life” (Gal. 3:21). This does not mean that the covenant of works had no further use, nor that it was absent from the covenants that God established with his people. On the contrary, it was reaffirmed, but in a new way; it was placed at the core of a covenant of redemption and was employed to different ends. According to this conception then, the Old Covenant was not exactly the equivalent of the covenant of works although it reaffirmed it. In agreement with the covenant of works, the Old Covenant demanded a perfect obedience to the law of God,[6] but contrary to the covenant of works, the Old Covenant was based on a sacrificial system for the redemption of sinners.[7] The covenant of works reaffirmed in the Old Covenant made this sacrificial system absolutely necessary since all sinners transgressed the law. However, the sacrifices of the Old Covenant could not accomplish the righteousness of the law effectively; that is why they only had a typological and temporary value. As long as they were offered, these sacrifices recalled that the requirements of the law were not satisfied, since sin still subsisted, and that this law weighed on the members of the Old Covenant like a curse (cf. Heb. 10:1-14). It is under this law that Christ was born (Gal. 4:4) and it is this same law (i.e. the covenant of works reaffirmed in the Old Covenant) that Christ fulfilled by his obedience (Rom. 5:19-20) and it is the curse of this law which he endured by his death (Gal. 3:13). Christ, therefore, accomplished the Old Covenant perfectly.

Therefore, the Old Covenant was, for the people of Israel, a typological covenant, earthly and conditional, designed to lead them to Christ and not to the covenant of works as such. The Old Covenant, while being different from the covenant of works, reaffirmed it, not so that Israel would look for life by this means, but so that Christ would accomplish it. The Old Covenant was, therefore, not only necessary to lead to Christ but it was necessary so that he could accomplish salvation for God’s Israel. Samuel Petto explains this important point:

Indeed, I think, one great end of God in bringing Israel under this Sinai covenant, was to make way for Christ, his being born or made under the law, in order to the fulfilling of it for us. I do not see how (by any visible dispensation) Jesus Christ could have been born actually under the law, if this Sinai covenant had not been made; for the covenant of works with the first Adam being violated, it was at an end as to the promising part; it promised nothing; after once it was broken, it remained in force only as to its threatening part, it menaced death to all the sinful seed of Adam, but admitted no other into it who were without sin, either to perform the righteousness of it, or to answer the penalty; it had nothing to do with an innocent person, after broken, for it was never renewed with man again, as before: therefore, an admitting an innocent person (as Jesus Christ was) into it, must be by some kind of repetition or renewing of it, though with other intendments than at first, viz. that the guilty persons should not fulfil it for themselves, but that another, a surety, should fulfil it for them.[8]

This explanation from Petto demonstrates how he himself, and most of the Particular Baptists, considered that the covenant of works was reaffirmed with a different goal than at its first promulgation. The covenant of works did not provide a substitution to satisfy its righteousness; no one could obey in Adam’s place nor suffer his punishment. God, therefore, reaffirmed the covenant of works in another covenant that allowed for a righteous person to substitute himself for sinners. Not only was the Old Covenant not against the promises of God (Gal. 3:21), but it was given specifically for the accomplishment of these promises (Gal. 3:22-24). Without being itself a covenant of grace, the Old Covenant was given because of the covenant of grace and with a view to its accomplishment. Is this what the apostle John wanted to underline by declaring: “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17)? The law given by Moses was a grace to lead to the grace accomplished by Jesus Christ.

… Continue reading part 7

[1] Thomas Patient, The Doctrine of Baptism, And the Distinction of the Covenants (London: Printed by Henry Hills, 1654), beginning of Chapter 10.

[2] Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, 108.

[3] Samuel Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace (1820; reprint, Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Tentmaker Publications, 2007), 131-32.

[4] Keach, The Everlasting Covenant, 7.

[5] Keach, The Display of Glorious Grace, 15.

[6] The slightest disobedience to the law constituted a sin punishable by death (Rom. 6:23), but not necessarily a transgression of the Old Covenant. It is necessary to make the distinction between the requirements of the law of works affirmed under the Old Covenant and the requirements of the Old Covenant itself towards Israel. The maintaining of the Old Covenant depended on the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 7:11) and not on absolute obedience. God planned for his commandments to be transgressed while maintaining his covenant. The Old Covenant was, therefore, not given to Israel as a covenant of life (Gal 3:21). However, it held this function for Christ. This is why Samuel Petto considered that the Old Covenant did not have the same function for Israel as for Christ. For Israel it was a national covenant by whose conditions she received blessings and curses in its land (Deut. 28). For Christ, it was a covenant of works for which he had to accomplish righteousness actively and passively (Rom. 5:18-20; 8:3-4; Gal. 3:13; 4:4-5). Petto writes, “The Sinai law was not given as a covenant of works to Israel. It was designed to be a covenant of works as to be accomplished by Jesus Christ, as will appear afterwards; but the end of the Lord was not that it should be so to Israel.” Cf. Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, 113. This point is crucial in understanding the nature of the Old Covenant, its relationship to the covenant of works, its requirements for Israel as the covenant people and its accomplishment in Jesus Christ as the last Adam.

[7]After the fall, the covenant of works is no longer found as a law of life, because it would have been impossible for sinners to subsist within it and obtain life through it because of sin (cf. Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:21). The covenant of works was maintained after the fall, thanks to the Old Covenant where it functioned on a new basis – a sacrificial system. This sacrificial system did not start with Aaron, but immediately after the fall and was in effect at the time of the Patriarchs (Gen. 3:21; 4:4; 8:20; 22:13; 46:1), until it was fully developed in the law of Moses.

[8] Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, 131-32.

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