From the Covenant of Works to the Covenant of Grace

April 26, 2017

Just as their paedobaptists predecessors did in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Particular Baptists affirmed, in the London Baptist Confession of 1689, a single covenant of grace and only one people of God from Genesis to Revelation. Not only did the Baptists share this conviction of the same salvation by the covenant of grace in the entire Bible, but they fully endorsed the concept of the covenant of works which was broken by Adam and accomplished by Christ.

Nonetheless, the LBC is not a mere copy of the WCF and chapter 7 “Of God’s Covenant” is an important witness of the way in which the Particular Baptists modified the prevalent understanding regarding federal theology. I write “modified” rather than “rejected” because even concerning the covenants, the Particular Baptists shared a lot of what the WCF teaches. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the LBC are nearly identical to the WCF; the difference can be observed negatively from what was left out (especially paragraphs 5 and 6 of the WCF) and positively from paragraph 3 of the LBC which articulates distinctly the Baptist view of the covenant.

In this article we will first look at paragraph 1 and the covenant of works in order to set the stage for paragraphs 2–3 and the covenant of grace. The first paragraph explains what needed to be done by man to receive eternal life. After the fall, the covenant of works was replaced by the covenant of grace freely given to the believers because Christ has accomplished the law of works stated in paragraph 1. Let’s follow this progression.

 

How Could Man Merit Eternal Life Before God?

The goal of God’s covenant is to bring eternal life to man. The first covenant would bring man to life by works. God gave Adam “a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it” (LBC 6:1). Adam, by accomplishing the covenant of works, was to earn eternal life, i.e. he was to seal his communion bond with God (John 17:3) in righteousness by his obedience in order to attain incorruptibility and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53–54). But could a finite and natural creature really merit eternal life before an infinite and eternal God? The first paragraph of chap. 7 explains how this could be so:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

The distance between God and the creature is also called the distinction Creator/creature. This distinction and distance is so great that it is impossible for man to merit anything from God. The confession backs this view of the impossibility for man in his natural standing before God to merit anything by two biblical passages: Luke 17:10 and Job 35:7–8. God owes nothing to man and man owes everything to God. But by way of a covenant, God condescends to remunerate the obedience of man by eternal life. This is what paragraph 1 refers to by recalling the covenant of works that was presented in chapter 6.

 

What is the Covenant of Grace?

The covenant of grace is the means by which God gave eternal life to men after the fall; it brings together all the elect of all times. This covenant is introduced by the confession at paragraph 2:

Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

The covenant of grace is, simply put, salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone. Basically, any man is either under the curse of the broken covenant of works in Adam or under the blessing of the covenant of grace in Christ.

Even though the Scriptures don’t use the expression “covenant of grace”, the substance of this particular covenant is found everywhere from Genesis 3:15, through the history of redemption, until its accomplishment in the NT. The Epistle to the Hebrews attributes directly to the grace of the New Covenant (the covenant of grace), the salvation of those who were called since the fall:

And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15).

Even if the sacrifice of the covenant of grace by which all blessings proceed was not shed till long after the promise was made, many had already been called and did possess by faith the eternal inheritance. The retroactive efficacy of the New Covenant is one of the main reasons why many Particular Baptists equated the covenant of grace with the New Covenant.

 

Distinguishing Works and Grace

Now that we have briefly introduced the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, it is extremely important to distinguish them in order that we don’t confuse the law and the gospel. The covenant of works, even if it originates “by some voluntary condescension on God’s part” is a conditional covenant. The nature of these two covenants is as distinct as works and grace are (Romans 11:6). The question is not if Christians have to obey the law; indeed, as a moral law, it requires their obedience (John 15:9–10). The question is whether the covenant of grace is conditional or unconditional. According to Scripture, this covenant is entirely unconditional: “For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants” (Romans 4:16). Faith, which is sometimes called a condition, is none meritorious; it is not so much a condition as a means to enter the covenant of grace. It is not even from man, but from God (Ephesians 2:8). Every notion of a conditional covenant of grace, whether to get in or to stay in the covenant, compromises the gospel of free grace (Galatians 5:4).

Even if it seems quite simple to distinguish between the covenant of works in Adam and the covenant of grace in Christ, the principles involved in their relation are often confused. One reason for this confusion comes from the way that the covenant of grace is sometimes connected with the covenants of the Old Testament (Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic). The Reformed, before the Particular Baptists, had identified these covenants as administrations of the covenant of grace. Since the Old Covenant, which included Abraham, Moses, and David, as most reformed theologians thought, was conditional in its nature (Genesis 18:19; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:12, 27:26; 2 Samuel 7:14). By presenting it as an administration of the covenant of grace, we encounter the risk to fall into conditional grace. This is how the church, in the course of its history, often mixed unmerited grace with meriting works. The Baptists completely rejected from their confession the idea that the covenant of grace was administered by the covenants of the O.T. Thus, they avoid the confusion between the law and the gospel.

 

Rejecting Also Paedocovenantalism

Furthermore, by considering the Old Covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace, the reformed theologians easily justified paedobaptism. By teaching that the Old Covenant was the covenant of grace formerly administered, they could declare that the children of any member of the covenant of grace is also in the covenant of grace by natural birth privilege (Genesis 17:7). Since the children ought to receive the covenant sign at birth (Genesis 17:10), it’s only normal that they receive it under the new administration of the covenant of grace.

On the other hand, if the covenant established with Abraham was not the covenant of grace but another covenant subservient to the covenant of grace, we can maintain the Baptist principle that it is not natural descent by birth, but spiritual birth, that gives entry into the covenant of grace and all of its privileges (John 1:12–13, 3:3–6). This is why the sign of the covenant should be reserved only to those who profess faith in Christ. “That which s born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 NKJV) .

 

Where Was the Covenant of Grace During the Old Covenant Time?

If the Old Covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace what was it and where was the covenant of grace during this time? The first part of LBC 7:3 answers this question:

This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament…

The 1689 federalism replaced the paedobaptist concept of one covenant of grace under different administrations by the one covenant of grace revealed by farther steps model. The understanding of this particular federalism is that the covenant of grace was not formally established during the O.T. period, but was revealed through the different covenants. Therefore, according to this view, the Old Covenant was both distinct from and subservient to the covenant of grace. Let’s now examine how it was connected to the covenant of grace by pre-stating the conditions of the eternal covenant of redemption.

 

The Eternal Covenant of Redemption

The confession roots the covenant of grace in the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. The rest of paragraph 3 expresses this understanding thus:

[…] it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.

From all eternity the plan of redemption exists in God. This plan involves the incarnation of the Son in order to redeem the fallen posterity which was given to Him and bring them to eternal life (2 Timothy 1:9–10). This covenant of redemption is revealed in Scripture through the doctrine of election (Ephesians 1:3–5). It is also revealed by the mission that Christ received from His Father (John 6:38–39; 1 Peter 1:20).

If we define the plan of redemption in terms of a covenant, it is necessary to state what the terms of this covenant were. The Son was to come into the world by taking on a human nature as a man under the law (Philippians 2:7; Galatians 4:4). He was to live a sinless life and obey perfectly the will of God expressed in the moral law and keep whatever the Father would ask in addition to the law (Matthew 5:17, 26:42; John 8:29). He had to become the sacrificial representative of all the elect in order to undergo the curse of the law by dying in their place on the cross (Galatians 3:13; Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 2:14-17). In exchange, the Father was going to give Him life by raising Him from the dead, sitting Him at its right-hand, giving him a people that would serve Him and inherit with him eternal life (Acts 2:24; Philippians 2:9–11; Titus 2:14). This was the eternal covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son.

Scripture tells us that this divine plan arrived only “when the fulness of the time came” (Galatians 4:4). By this we ought to understand that not only did the time before the incarnation put in place what was necessary for the Son to execute the redemption, but also provided the necessary frame of reference to understand this redemption. How could we understand the covenant of works that the Son had to accomplish without the Old Covenant to reveal its meaning and understand what Adam had broken? How could we grasp the atoning death of Christ without the sacrificial system of the Old Testament to reveal it? How could we contemplate our eternal redemption without its prefiguration in the history of redemption? All this was “a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17). The Old Testament revealed Jesus Christ and his work (John 5:39) in such a way that we can contemplate the breadth and length of God’s love revealed in Christ once the covenant was accomplished (Ephesians 3:1–21).

Just as we understand Adam in the light of “Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14), we understand all of the Old Testament Scriptures in the light of their accomplishment in Christ (Luke 24:27). The covenant of redemption accomplished by Jesus helps us understand the Old Testament that shows us, in return, the divine glory that shines in the New Covenant from Genesis to Revelation (2 Corinthians 3:14–18). The New Covenant is the concrete manifestation of the heavenly realities in the visible world. It’s only by this covenant (New Covenant) that the eternal inheritance (eternal covenant of redemption/covenant of grace) is given (Hebrews 9:15).

The confession ends this section by affirming that “it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality”. Thus, from all time, all those that were saved, were saved by the grace offered in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. Before it was established in the form of a covenant sealed in the blood (Hebrews 13:20) it was revealed by a promise guaranteed by God’s oath (Hebrews 6:17). This covenant of grace revealed and concluded in history is founded on the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son for the redemption of the elect. It is the exclusive source of salvation according to what Scripture expressly declares: “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).