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By Farther Steps – Part 7


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 New Covenant

In the Particular Baptist perspective, the identity of the New Covenant could not be separated from the covenant of grace. That is why much of what has been said already in this chapter defines the Baptist view of the New Covenant. We will only further develop what could be seen as a distinct aspect of the Baptist perspective – the newness of the New Covenant.

The newness of the New Covenant, according to the paedobaptist approach, was confined to the external aspects of the covenant and did not touch on its internal substance. This is exactly what the great Reformed theologian Francis Turretin said. “It is called “new” not as to the substance of the covenant (which is the same in both) but: (1) as to the circumstances and mode.”[1]

John Owen, in agreement with Particular Baptist theology, explains that the unconditional nature constituted the newness of the New Covenant:

A covenant properly is a compact or agreement on certain terms mutually stipulated by two or more parties. As promises are the foundation and rise of it, as it is between God and man, so it comprises also precepts, or laws of obedience, which are prescribed to man on his part to be observed. But in the description of the covenant here annexed [i.e., the New Covenant], there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed to him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises, as we will see in the explication of it.[2]

The unconditional nature constitutes the radically new and unique element of the New Covenant. For the credobaptists, the New Covenant was radically new since no other formal covenant before it was unconditional.

The promises of the Old Covenant were preceded by an “if” that made them conditioned on man’s obedience, while the promises of the New Covenant were marked by a divine monergism:

33“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer. 31:33-34)

The three elements that make up the substance of the New Covenant are works supremely operated by God and are presented in the indicative mood, not the conditional. None of these promises depends on a condition that had first to be met by man. The unconditional nature of this covenant made it a radically new covenant. Thomas Patient explains that what made the New Covenant “intransgressable,” contrary to the Old Covenant which could be transgressed (Gen. 17:14), was this unconditional character:

For, as I have shown before, it is impossible that the New Covenant can be broken because it is an absolute covenant made on no condition to be fulfilled by the creature. But the Lord works “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” in this covenant. Therefore, “it is not in him that willeth, nor in him that runneth, but in God Who shows mercy.”[3]

However, the Baptists did not conceive of the unconditional nature of the New Covenant as coming from the abolition of the covenant of works. On the contrary, the New Covenant was unconditional, according to them, since the covenant of works was accomplished. Thus, the New Covenant was unconditional for all its members, but it was not for its mediator – Christ. Benjamin Keach expresses this understanding:

1. As it refers to Christ, or to his part, and Work therein; and as thus it was a Conditional Covenant, Christ receives all for us, wholly upon the account of his own Desert, or Merits.

2. But whatsoever we receive by virtue of this Covenant, it is wholly in a way of Free Grace and Favor, through his Merits, or through that Redemption we have by his Blood: But take it either ways, ‘tis of Grace.[4]

Not only did the newness of the New Covenant consist in its unconditional nature, but also in that all its members would participate in the substance of the covenant of grace. “No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:34). In this regard, John Owen writes, “Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the New Covenant can be pretended.”[5]

The Scriptures declare that the substance of the New Covenant can be summarized in three blessings: the law written on the heart, the personal and saving knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of sins which constitute the basis of the other two blessings and of the whole New Covenant. God takes great care in saying that this substance would not be the inheritance of only some amongst his people, but of all his people inclusively: “’because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord.”


In this chapter, we have tried to put forth the majority Particular Baptist understanding of federal theology. In order to present this view of federalism, we have compared it to seventeenth-century paedobaptist federal theology. The latter conceived the covenant of grace upon a substance/administration hermeneutic, which leads to the “one covenant under two administrations” (OT/NT) structure. The Particular Baptist construction of the covenant of grace was rather established by a “revealed/concluded” (promise/fulfillment) structure, progressively revealed in the Old Testament by “the covenants of the promise” and concluded in the New Testament by the institution of the New Covenant as the promised covenant of grace fulfilled. These two different understandings of the covenant of grace determined the rest of the differences between the seventeenth-century Particular Baptist and paedobaptist theologies.

By Farther Steps part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7

[1] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:232.

[2] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 259. Italics added.

[3] Patient, The Doctrine of Baptism, And the Distinction of the Covenants, chapter 9, argument 6. The italics are from the author.

[4] Keach, The Display of Glorious Grace, 173. Similarly, John Bunyan, in a section entitled “The conditions of the New Covenant” presents the conditional aspect of this covenant; in another section entitled “Christ completely fulfilled the conditions of the New Covenant,” he demonstrates that it is not the believer, but only Christ who guarantees the success of this covenant and ensures its blessings to its members. Cf. John Bunyan, “The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded” in The Works of John Bunyan (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:524, 534.

[5] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 299.

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