The Evangelical Convictions of Benjamin Keach

Founders Journal 76 · Spring 2009 · pp. 9-16

The Evangelical Convictions of Benjamin Keach

Tom Hicks

Benjamin Keach was an evangelical. As a Baptist pastor, his aim was to believe, teach, and defend everything in Scripture, including Baptist ecclesiology, but he was first and foremost an evangelical who benefitted from and held certain core doctrines in common with other evangelicals. Those core convictions related to the authority of Scripture, the gospel-structure of Scripture, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Biographical Background

Benjamin Keach was born on February 29, 1640 at Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire, England, and died on July 18, 1704. He lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of English history. Keach was converted when he was fifteen years old under the preaching of Matthew Mead, a warm evangelical Anglican Calvinist. Being convinced of believers’ baptism and liberty of conscience, Keach sought baptism by immersion under the ministry of John Russell, who was a General Baptist pastor. By the time Keach was eighteen years old, he had demonstrated that he was a gifted teacher and preacher; so, his church set him apart for the ministry.

When Keach was twenty years old, he married a young woman named Jane Grove. They had five children, but Jane died in 1670 when she was only thirty-one years old. Keach remained single for two years after Jane’s death, and then he married Susanna Partridge, who had been widowed. Keach and Susanna had five daughters, and they were married for thirty-two years until Keach died in 1704.

Keach’s ministry was fraught with difficulties and persecutions. He was jailed in 1664 for preaching to a group of dissenters. He was arrested again that same year when the authorities found out that he had written a book for children entitled, A New and Easie Primer, because they claimed it taught various heresies, including believers’ baptism. The jury found Keach guilty because the judge intimidated them into handing down a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Keach to jail for two weeks, during which time he was required to appear twice in the pillory where his books were burned right in front of his face.

When Keach was twenty-eight years old, persecution was so severe that he and his family moved to London where he was ordained the pastor of a church in Southwark. In his early years as a believer, Keach held to an Arminian doctrine of salvation. But, soon after becoming the pastor of the Southwark church, he adopted Calvinist theology, which he vigorously preached and defended for the rest of his life. When Keach first became the pastor of the Southwark church, the small congregation met in a little house on Tooley Street in London. However, as the church grew, it soon had to move to Horse-lie-down where it eventually grew to have nearly one thousand members.[1] Keach’s church would later be pastored by other notable figures such as John Gill and Charles Spurgeon.

Keach was arguably the most influential second generation Baptist. He wrote more than forty books in defense of the gospel and his whole system of theology. The fact that he signed the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith helped to give that confession wide acceptance among Particular Baptists. Keach was committed to all biblical truth, but his core beliefs were those shared not just by fellow Baptists, but by other evangelicals as well.[2]

The Bible

Benjamin Keach believed that the Bible is God’s perfect revelation to men. In 1682, Keach wrote a book on the metaphors of Scripture, entitled Tropologia: A Key to Open Scripture Metaphors. In a section preceding the main body of the work, Keach included a detailed defense of the divine origin and authority of the Bible, called “Arguments to Prove the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures.”[3]In that section, Keach marshaled numerous arguments in defense of a single thesis: “The Scripture, or Book called the Bible, is of divine Original, inspired by the Spirit of God, and therefore of infallible Truth and Authority.”[4]

Keach said that his thesis should be evident for a number of reasons. Chief among those reasons is that the Bible itself claims to be God’s Word. The Bible’s human authors believed that the words they wrote were the very words of God. Keach wrote, “that God Himself inspired them to write it, and that it was no product of their own, but every part of it the genuine Dictate of the Holy Ghost.”[5]

The character of the human authors also gives credibility to their claims. The biblical authors did not present themselves as perfect men, but humbly revealed their own faults. Since they were so honest about themselves in their writings, their motivations should not be looked upon with suspicion. In addition, the Bible is a book that was written by numerous human authors over a period of thousands of years. With so many different authors from different times, one would expect a wide variety of conflicting opinions. However, the Bible’s teaching is harmonious. The Bible is a single story from cover to cover with a single unifying theme. The Scripture’s unity is a testimony to its divine origin.

Keach also made a practical argument for the Bible’s authority. No other book exercises such power over the hearts of men. Only the Bible has the power to convert sinners and edify saints, to expose sin by God’s holy law and to bring men to salvation by God’s great grace. Such power is proof of the Bible’s divine origin. The doctrines revealed in Scripture are so contrary to natural human impulses that it would be impossible for men to have written it. Doctrines such as divine sovereignty, human sin, the cross, grace, repentance and faith are repugnant to depraved human beings. Thus, the Bible must be of divine origin.

Regarding the relationship between the inerrant originals and translations of the Bible, Keach wrote:

The Word of God is the Doctrine and Revelation of God’s Will, the Sense and Meaning, not barely or strictly the Words, Letters, and Syllables. This is contained exactly and most purely in the Originals, and in all Translations, so far as they agree therewith. Now though some translations may exceed others in Propriety, and significant rendering of the Originals; yet they generally, (even the most imperfect that we know of,) express and hold forth so much of the Mind, Will, and Counsel of God, as is sufficient, by the Blessing of God upon a conscientious Reading thereof, to acquaint a Man with the Mysteries of Salvation, to work in him a true Faith, and bring him to live godly, righteously, and soberly in the World, and to Salvation in the next.[6]

In other words, the very letters, syllables, and words of the originals were “exactly” and “most purely” found in the originals. God inspired every detail of the autographs. But, in His powerful providence, God also has ensured that any corruption of transmission or translation has not so changed the message of the Bible such that its meaning is distorted.

In spite of all his arguments for Scripture’s truthfulness, Keach believed that only the Holy Spirit can soften a man’s heart to make him able and willing to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. There is no logical argument that will convince a man of the Bible’s truthfulness unless the Spirit brings him to repentance. In the fifth question, Keach’s Catechism asks, “How do we know that the Bible is the Word of God?” It answers, “The Bible evidences itself to be God’s Word by the heavenliness of its doctrine, the unity of its parts, its power to convert sinners and edify saints; but the Spirit of God only, bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in our hearts, is able fully to persuade us that the Bible is the Word of God.”

The confessions of faith that Keach embraced also taught the doctrine of biblical authority and divine origin. Keach held to the Second London Baptist Confession, which has a clear statement on the authority of Scripture: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (2LBCF 1:1). It also says that Scripture “is to be received because it is the Word of God” (2LBCF 1:4), and that it is “infallible truth and divine authority” (2LBCF 1:5). The Baptist Catechism, which bears Keach’s own name, asks, “What is the Word of God?” It answers, “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, being given by divine inspiration, are the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Keach drew up a confession of faith for the Southwark church. Section 6 of that confession, “Of the Holy Scriptures,” reads, “We believe the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, and are the only Rule of Faith, and Practice; all things being contained therein that are necessary for us to know concerning God, and our Duty unto him, and also unto all men.”[7]

Keach’s commitment to the Bible’s authority was a commitment that he held in common with other evangelicals. It set him apart from groups that denied biblical authority and formed the basis of unity with other evangelicals.

Covenant Theology

Like other evangelicals, Keach embraced covenant theology, which he believed was the Bible’s own hermeneutical grid and therefore the lens through which Scripture should be read. For Keach, covenant theology was the framework of the gospel itself. According to Austin Walker, “The covenant of grace assumed a central place in Keach’s thinking, so much so that it is not possible to appreciate either Keach’s Calvinism or the man himself without a right appreciation of his understanding of it.”[8] In 1693, Keach preached two sermons that were later edited and printed in a forty-four page booklet entitled The Everlasting Covenant. These two sermons outline Keach’s covenant theology.

The heart of Keach’s covenant theology has to do with the contrast between the covenant of works (law) and the covenant of grace (gospel). Keach believed that God made a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden of Eden, and that God made a covenant of grace among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternity.[9] Where Adam failed to keep God’s law, Christ succeeded. Romans five explains the contrast between these two covenant heads (Romans 5:12-21). Just as there is one covenant with Adam and all who are in him, so also is there one covenant with Christ and all who are in Him.

Keach taught that the Bible reveals two administrations of the covenant of works. The first administration appeared in the garden before Adam’s fall. That garden covenant promised eternal life to Adam on the condition of his perfect obedience to God’s law and threatened eternal death for sin. In addition to the first edition of the covenant of works, Keach wrote that “there was another Edition or Administration of it 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… It was not given to justify them.” Referencing John Owen, Keach argued that the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelite nation serves to reveal God’s perfect holiness. It also serves to prove that sinners, who are without such perfect holiness, can never be justified in God’s sight. Therefore, one function of the Mosaic covenant is to drive men outside of themselves, away from their own righteousness, and to the alien righteousness of Christ for justification (Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 3:21-22). Keach’s covenant theology was significantly influenced by John Owen, who was not a Baptist, but a Congregationalist.[10]

Keach taught that the covenant of grace manifested itself throughout biblical history. Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium, reveals the first gospel promise to Adam. It is a revelation of the covenant of grace because the promise of grace “primarily runs to Christ, as the Woman’s seed, and so to us in him.” The Abrahamic promise does the same when God declares to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” According to the New Testament, Christ himself is the promised offspring (Galatians 3:16), and this promise guarantees blessings for men from every nation who are in Him (Galatains 3:28-29). Similarly, Keach argued, the Davidic covenant “runs to Christ, and also in him to us” (Psalm 89:20, 28, 29). The covenant with David and his offspring pointed to Christ and was a type of the covenant with Christ and those in Him. So, all of the Old Testament covenants are promises flowing from a single covenant of grace with Christ and those in Him.[11]

Keach argued that the covenant of grace is a covenant of grace to the elect, but to Christ, it is a covenant of works and merit. Christ had to keep God’s law in order to merit the blessing Adam forfeited. The elect benefit from the merits of Christ in the covenant of grace when the Spirit applies Christ’s work to them.

He then discussed various ways in which the eternal covenant of grace is a well-ordered covenant (2 Samuel 22:5).[12] It is well-ordered with respect to God’s attributes. It puts many of God’s attributes on display, including God’s sovereignty, showing that God has the right to choose those upon whom He would bestow His saving benefits. The covenant also displays God’s infinite wisdom in designing such a covenant, His love for His people, His justice in upholding His holy law, His power in effectually calling the elect, and His faithfulness in keeping them to the end.[13]

Keach said the covenant of grace is well-ordered in that it magnifies the glory of the whole Trinity. The Father’s glory is magnified because He is the efficient cause of redeeming grace. The Father sends the Son, and everything the Son does in the covenant ultimately redounds to the glory of God the Father. The covenant of grace also magnifies the glory of Jesus Christ as the covenant head. Christ’s glory is manifest by His loving willingness to suffer and intercede for God’s enemies and to be their high priest forever, purchasing justification and securing sanctification for the elect. The covenant also magnifies the glory of the Holy Spirit, demonstrating His divinity and distinct personality. He has His own terms to fulfill, convicting of sin, quickening the elect on the basis of Christ’s work, clothing them in Christ’s righteousness by faith alone, sanctifying them to the uttermost, and preserving them safely unto their glorification. Thus, Keach said that the covenant of grace is well-ordered to glorify the whole Trinity.[14]

Furthermore, the covenant of grace is well-ordered because it honors God’s holy and righteous law. Keach insisted that Scripture shows God upholding and honoring the law by means of the covenant of grace. He taught that God cannot justly discard His law, nor can God justly accept imperfect obedience as any part of justification because justification requires perfect obedience to God’s law.

Keach then showed that the covenant of grace is well-ordered for the good of the elect. It is the ground and cause of their reconciliation, quickening, justification, adoption, sanctification and salvation from hell. It is a dependable covenant, sure, and certain in every respect. Christ fulfills all of its terms. The covenant was formed in the eternal and immutable decree of God and is therefore sure. It is a sworn oath and promise for the elect. It was confirmed by Christ’s blood and executed by the Holy Spirit. This covenant was witnessed by mighty miracles and attested by the Apostles. Therefore, the elect may trust that this is a sure covenant for their good.[15]

Finally, Keach turned to apply his two sermons. His application included both “reprehension” and “exhortation.” Keach began by reproving licentious living. It took the death of Christ to redeem men from their sin, which shows sin’s seriousness. Far from promoting lawlessness, the covenant of grace, rightly understood, leads men to understand the great wickedness of sin and causes them to hate it and turn from it. Keach also reproved those who mixed their own holiness with Christ’s righteousness, since nothing short of Christ’s perfect righteousness can merit any justification for sinful men. Keach admonished everyone who tries to reform his life through moral efforts and legal strivings, since such legalistic effort can never bring salvation. Only those who look to and rest in Christ and His righteousness may have peace with God and properly grounded relief for their troubled consciences. Keach exhorted the ungodly to tremble in light of their sins and the infinite offense they are to God. He told broken sinners to look to Christ for comfort and urged them to embrace God’s free grace in the gospel, and to find consolation in Jesus Christ.[16]

For Keach, the covenant of grace is no lofty or high minded speculation. It is the very marrow of the gospel with rich and far reaching practical implications for all men everywhere, but especially for those the Father has chosen for salvation. It is also one of the gospel convictions that he shared with fellow evangelicals who were not Baptists.

Justification by Faith Alone

Keach’s doctrine of justification was another core doctrine that he shared with other orthodox evangelicals. There were two extreme unorthodox understandings of justification: (1) eternal justification before faith and (2) justification by faithful works on the last day. In response to both of these errors, Keach wrote A Medium Betwixt Two Extremes, in which he argued that justification is by faith alone, though the book primarily responds to eternal justification. God declares believing sinners righteous on the ground of Christ’s righteousness after it is received by faith alone. Keach insisted that while everyone in Adam is actually condemned, everyone in Christ is actually justified. The text of his sermon was Romans 8:1, which says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Keach began the sermon by dealing with the context of the passage in the book of Romans, showing that it comes after Paul charges that all are under sin and condemnation (Romans 1-3) and that justification comes by grace through faith (3-5), even though a war rages in the heart of every believer between the law of sin and the law of God (6-7). Keach then explained Romans 8:1, arguing that “now,” after conversion, there is no condemnation for those who are “in Christ.” On the basis of his exegesis, Keach drew two doctrinal conclusions. First, “All those that are in Christ Jesus, or have obtained actual Union with him, are justified Persons, and for ever delivered from Condemnation.” Second, “All Mankind, even the Elect as well as others, are under Condemnation, before their actual Union with Jesus Christ.”[17]

Keach then set out to show how absurd it is to say that the elect are actually united to Christ and justified from eternity. If eternal justification is true, then none of the elect were ever condemned. That is because on their scheme, Adam, who was among the elect, was eternally justified. If that is true, then Adam could not have been condemned when he fell in the garden.[18] It then necessarily follows that none of those who were in Adam could have been condemned either, and there was no fall or need for Christ’s redemption, which is absurd. Not only is justification before faith contrary to reason, but it is also contrary to Scripture. Romans 10:4 teaches that Christ is only the end of the law for those who believe, not to anyone else. Galatians 3:13 and 4:4-5 say that Christ came to redeem those who were under the law and thus condemnation. Those texts do not say that Christ came to redeem those who were justified but did not know it. It is also illogical to say that Christ redeems and justifies those who are under the law if they were never actually under the law’s condemnation.

Keach went on to explain in what sense Christ historically purchased reconciliation and justification for the elect and in what sense the elect are not actually justified and reconciled until they believe.[19] He argued that Christ’s historical work actually paid the price to deliver the elect, but that the elect are not actually delivered, but are condemned, until the Holy Spirit applies His work in time. Keach wrote, “So the Atonement made for us by Jesus Christ, which is the Price and meritorious Cause of our Redemption and Justification, is one thing, and our receiving the Atonement or the application of his Blood to our personal and actual discharge from Sin, Guilt and Condemnation, is another thing.”[20] So, Christ’s work purchased the robe of righteousness, but the Holy Spirit graciously places that robe over the shoulders of the elect in His time. Keach explained that the difficulty we have in grasping this distinction comes from the fact that God is an eternal and timeless Being who appropriates the benefits of Christ’s work at various points in time. Nevertheless, before the elect believe in time, they are condemned, and after they believe, they are justified. Justification changes God’s relationship with the elect from “condemned” to “justified.”[21]

Keach further explained that even though this controversy relates to the work of Christ and His federal headship, the same perplexity regarding accomplishment and application applies to Adam’s federal headship. When Adam sinned in the garden, his posterity was condemned in him. At that moment in history, Adam’s sin demerited condemnation for those who descend from him by natural generation. They were “fundamentally and representatively condemned in him.” However, none in Adam “are actually condemned until they actually exist and partake of his corrupt Nature.” The same is true of those in Christ. Christ’s work merited justification for those in Him. All of the elect were “fundamentally and representatively justified in him.” However, none in Christ “are actually and personally justified until they are united to him, and partake of his Divine Nature.”[22]

Keach argued that when men become partakers of the divine nature, they believe unto actual justification. According to Scripture, faith precedes actual justification (Romans 5:1; 3:28; Galatians 2:16, 24; Acts 13:38; John 3:36), and those who wish to honor the text of Scripture must affirm that we are actually justified after faith, not before it. While Keach affirmed that justification is by faith, he denied that faith is a “cause,” “condition,” “instrumental cause,” “procuring cause,” or “qualifying condition” of justification. By denying those terms, Keach meant to reject any notion that faith somehow renders Christ’s work more satisfying to God. He preferred instead to say simply that “without Faith God declares no Man a justified Person.” Keach wrote, “The Holy Spirit in our Union with Christ, puts upon us the Robe of Righteousness, which was not upon us before we obtained that Spiritual Union,” and, faith is “the Hand that receives, or that apprehends Jesus Christ.”[23] This is a critical difference between Keach and the high Calvinists. Keach denied that Christ’s righteousness is actually imputed until the Holy Spirit imputes it in time.

Keach recognized that there were some who taught that the elect merely come to realize that they are justified by faith (passive justification by faith). They said that though the elect were always justified, they did not always know it. So, when the elect come to faith, they simply come to understand the righteous status they have always possessed. Keach rejected this view as being inconsistent with the testimony of Scripture.[24]

He closed the sermon with an application that begins by warning people “to take heed how they seek to render the state of the Elect to be good before Grace and actual Union with Jesus Christ.”[25] Keach declared that there is no benefit that can come from telling unregenerate men that some of them might already be justified, since such teaching might simply serve to harden them in their sins. He also pointed out that justification before faith diminishes God’s grace and gives repentant sinners less to be thankful for after their conversion, since they were never children of wrath, but merely failed to realize their righteous status.

Keach’s doctrine of justification was the orthodox evangelical view. The doctrine of justification was central for Keach because it is the pivotal place at which Christology meets soteriology. On this point, like the doctrine of Scripture, and covenant theology, Keach was at one with his evangelical brothers in Christ.n


Notes:

1 David A. Copeland, Benjamin Keach and the Development of Baptist Traditions in Seventeenth-Century England (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), 59.

2 For more biographical information on Keach, see William Cathcart, ed., Baptist Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA: L.H. Everts, 1881), s.v. “Keach, Rev. Benjamin,” 637-638; Thomas Crosby, The History of the English Baptists (London: n.p., 1739), vol ii, 185-209; vol iii, 143-147; vol. iv, 268-314; Thomas J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity, vol. 1. (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 163-193.

3 For a more detailed analysis and description of Keach’s arguments contained in this section, see L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible, revised and expanded (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 75-81.

4 Benjamin Keach, Tropologia: A Key to Open Scripture Metaphors (London: n.p., 1682), viii.

5 Ibid., xvii.

6 Ibid., xxi.

7 Benjamin Keach, The Articles of the Faith of the Church of Christ or Congregation meeting at Horsley-down (London: n.p., 1697), 5.

8 Austin Walker, The Excellent Benjamin Keach (Dundas, ON, Canada: Joshua Press, 2004), 107.

9 Benjamin Keach, The Everlasting Covenant , A Sweet Cordial for a Drooping Soul or, The Excellent Nature of the Covenant of Grace Opened in a Sermon Preached January the 29th at the Funeral of Mr. Henry Forty (London: n.p., 1693), from the preface.

10 Ibid., 7.

11 Ibid., 10.

12 Ibid., 20-21.

13 Ibid., 22-24.

14 Ibid., 24-27.

15 Ibid., 31-34.

16 Ibid., 38-43.

17 Benjamin Keach, A Medium Betwixt Two Extremes. Wherein it is proved that the whole First Adam was condemned, and the whole Second Adam justified (London: n.p., 1698), 11, 12.

18 Ibid., 14.

19 Keach said it is logical nonsense to say that “God saw us in the first Adam condemned, and in the second Adam justified, at one and the same time.” Ibid., 25.

20 Ibid., 18.

21 Ibid., 26-27.

22 Ibid., 19.

23 Ibid., 20-22.

24 Ibid., 27-28.

25 Ibid., 32.