Benjamin Keach's Covenant Theology and Justification
Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), one of our early English Baptist forefathers, taught that the doctrine of justification was inextricably bound up with the biblical doctrine of the covenants, and especially with the covenant of grace. 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.”1 It is also true that it is impossible to understand Keach’s doctrine of justification without understanding his doctrine of the covenants. The Everlasting Covenant (1693) is a series of two sermons that were later edited and printed in a forty-four page booklet.
Keach originally preached the first of these sermons to his congregation at Horsly-down at the funeral of a fellow minister of the gospel, Mr. Henry Forty, who was the pastor of a church in Abingdon. The sermon passage is 2 Samuel 23:5, “For does not my house stand so with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” The text says that these were “the last words of David” (v. 1). Keach believed that just as the everlasting covenant of grace comforted David and gave him hope on his deathbed, so the covenant of grace is the only hope of any dying sinner. He wrote, “Men may talk of their own Righteousness, and Gospel-Holiness; yet I am persuaded, they will not dare to plead in Point of Justification, on their Death-Beds, nor in the Judgment-Day; No, no ‘tis nothing but Christ . . . can give Relief to a wounded, and distressed Conscience.”2 The main burden of the two sermons is to demonstrate that there is no distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. According to Keach, the covenant of grace is the covenant of redemption, and preserving the unity of the two serves to safeguard the doctrine of justification by faith alone on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone.3
In the first section of the work, Keach explained that he had previously been convinced of a distinction between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption, but upon further study, he was persuaded that they are the same covenant.4 There is one covenant of grace with two distinct parts. One part of the covenant of grace is made with Christ the mediator, and the other part is made with all of the elect in him. Keach believed that to separate these two parts of the covenant of grace into two different covenants tends to separate Christ from the redemption of his people and opens the way for men to rely upon their own holiness for justification. He therefore sought to show that the doctrine of one eternal covenant of grace is biblical, that it stands against all objections, that it is interconnected with the rest of biblical doctrine, and that it brings great comfort to the souls of believers.
Keach argued from Scripture that the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are the same covenant. According to Keach, the Bible never recognizes three overarching covenants, but only two: the covenant with Adam and the covenant with Christ. Romans five contrasts these two covenant heads only (Rom 5:12-21), and 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.5 Keach affirmed 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.6 Beyond that 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.”7 Referencing John Owen’s work, Keach argued that the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelite nation serves to reveal God’s perfect holiness.8 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 (Rom 3:19-20; Gal 3:21-22).
Then Keach argued that the Old Testament points to Christ as the only basis of justification. Genesis 3:15 reveals the first gospel promise to Adam in the protoevangelium. This promise “primarily runs to Christ, as the Woman’s seed, and so to us in him.”9 The Abrahamic covenant 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 (Gal 3:16), and this promise guarantees blessings for men from every nation who are in him (Gal 3:28-29). Similarly, Keach argued, the Davidic covenant “runs to Christ, and also in him to us” (Ps 89:20, 28, 29).10 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 with Christ and those in him.11 The Old Testament knows nothing of two distinct covenants of redemption and grace. The Bible’s structure is therefore bi-covenantal not tri-covenantal (1 Cor 15:22).
The sermon then proceeds to answer a number of objections to Keach’s doctrine of one eternal covenant of grace. Keach did not specify the source or sources of the following objections, but they were actual objections leveled by those who opposed Keach’s views. Some objected that because God’s saving design involves distinct parties, there must be two covenants. They argued that Christ’s obligations and promises are different from the obligations and promises God made to the elect; therefore, there are two covenants. Keach responded by asserting that the situation is not so clear cut. God’s covenant with Christ was a covenant that involved the elect because all of his redemptive work was to be on their behalf and to secure their blessings. So, God’s covenant with the elect was a covenant with them in Christ and not apart from him.12
Another opposing argument claimed that since God eternally entered into covenant with Christ before the fall and since God temporally enters into covenant with the elect after the fall, there must be a separation between the two covenants. Keach responded that the covenant of grace was made with Christ and the elect in him before the foundation of the world. Even though the elect were not yet created, God still covenanted with Christ and with them in him for their redemption. Likewise, when God performed that same eternal covenant through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, He did so with Christ and with the elect in him. The mediator and the elect are parties of the eternal covenant both eternally and temporally. David’s dying hope in the sermon text (2 Sam 23:5) is the “everlasting” and eternal covenant of grace, not a mere temporal covenant, and Keach points out that the same is true in other passages of Scripture (Ps 89:19, 20, 26, 29).13 To separate Christ from his people in a temporal covenant of grace and then to emphasize that temporal covenant with the elect over the eternal covenant with Christ makes covenant theology man-centered rather than Christ-centered, and it opens the way to highlight man’s works for justification rather than Christ’s work alone.
A further objection insisted that since Christ fulfills one set of conditions and the elect fulfill a different set of conditions, there must be two different covenants. Keach’s opponents said the condition of the covenant of works was perfect obedience for justification, but faith alone is the condition of justification in the covenant of grace. Therefore, there must be two different covenants. However, Keach responded by pointing out that the covenant with Christ secures and supplies all the covenant “conditions” for the elect. Christ did not merely live, die, and rise again only to sit idly at God’s right hand. Instead, Christ continues actively as the mediator of the elect, interceding for them and procuring for them the blessing of faith. Thus, when the objectors insisted that faith must be a condition of the covenant of grace, since “Christ does not believe for us,” Keach responded, “Who says he does? But, . . . has not he obtained Grace for us, to enable us to believe? Is not he the Author and Finisher of our Faith?”14 Though Christ does not himself believe for the elect, Keach argued that he causes the elect to believe by his mediating work in the covenant. Thus, it is wrong to separate the belief of the elect from Christ’s giving the elect belief. In the covenant, Christ both procures faith for the elect by his life, death, and resurrection and he applies faith to the elect by his covenantal intercession.
Keach did not speak of faith as a “condition” of the covenant of grace as some did; rather, he preferred to call faith a “blessing,” which flowed from the merits of Christ.15 Those who would distort the covenant of grace by tearing it into two covenants laid the foundation of both Neonomianism and Arminianism because on both of those systems, faith is viewed primarily as a responsibility that covenant members must fulfill, rather than a gift purchased and efficaciously applied by the work of Christ (Jn 6:37; 10:16; Phil 1:6; 2:13).16 That man-centered emphasis in Neonomianism and Arminianism turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works because it emphasizes the work of men over the work of Christ. King David’s hope, however, was that God would powerfully act on his behalf, “I cry out to God Most High to God who fulfills his purpose for me” (Ps 57:2).
Keach went on to say that separating the covenant of redemption from the covenant of grace makes Neonomian paedobaptist ecclesiology possible. Neonomians taught that the children of believers enter into the covenant of grace through infant baptism. They said that everyone in this covenant should believe and obey for their justification on the last day. Keach wrote:
I fear some Men run astray. For it seems as if some Men would have us believe, that the Covenant of Grace in the latitude of it, is but that merciful conditional Covenant of Faith, and Gospel Holiness, that God is pleased to enter into with us, and we with him, in our Baptism, and if we perform that Covenant to the end, we shall be Justified and saved; no, and so far as we do act in sincere Obedience, so far, we are already Justified; and if this be the Notion of these Men and that we must believe, as they do, then say I, we are not under Grace, but under a Law that will keep us in Doubts and Bondage as long as we live; and if we have no other Righteousness than this, which is either within us or wrought by us, we shall certainly drop down into Hell when we come to die.17
Believers and their children enter into the covenant of grace through baptism and to the degree that they believe, they are already justified, but full justification, according to Keach’s understanding of Neonomianism, is reserved for Judgment Day. Keach believed that the heart of this error is separating the covenant people of God from the righteousness of their covenant head by making a distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace.18
The Nature of the Covenant of Grace
Having answered various objections, Keach then set out to demonstrate the nature of the covenant of grace. First, Keach argued that it is a covenant of works and merit to Christ, but to the elect, it is a covenant of grace. Second, Keach said that it is an absolute covenant. There are no conditions of entry for the elect. They are joined to Christ eternally and unconditionally in the divine decree, and they are made actual beneficiaries with a real interest in all its blessings and privileges when the Spirit of Christ effectually and unconditionally works faith in them. Third, Keach explained that the eternal covenant of grace is a well-ordered covenant (2 Sam 22:5).19
The covenant of grace is “well-ordered” in various ways. 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 further 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.20
Keach said the covenant 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 is glorified by his loving willingness to suffer and intercede for God’s enemies and to be their high priest forever, purchasing and securing justification 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, robing 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.21
Furthermore, the covenant of grace is well-ordered because it honors God’s holy and righteous law. For Keach, this is no small matter. The law is part of the very substance of the covenant of grace. While Keach understood the Neonomians to teach that God changed the law of perfect obedience into a flexible Gospel-law, which is milder and easier to keep, Keach insisted that Scripture shows God upholding and honoring the law by means of the covenant of grace. Keach wrote:
God did not Repent, he gave the Law of perfect Obedience; for what could suit better with the Purity of his Holy Nature; nor could any Righteousness, short of a perfect Righteousness, Justify us: He did not therefore Design, by the Mediation and Obedience of Christ, to destroy the Law, or take any Recompense in the room of it, that every way did not Answer the Righteousness it required, and make Satisfaction for the Breach thereof: therefore, by Faith (that is) by having Christ’s perfect Righteousness imputed to us, in his explicit Conformity to the Law, by his active and passive Obedience would establish the law, and make it honorable. If by any Law, as God is Rector or Governor, Justification, or eternal Life, is to be had, it must be a Law of perfect Obedience, God’s Holy and Righteous Nature requiring it; and no Law of imperfect Obedience, tho’ never so Sincerely performed, can answer God’s justice, nor be agreeable with the Purity of his Nature, infinite Wisdom and Holiness.22
This is important because it demonstrates what Keach believed about the relationship between the law of God and his character. Keach insisted, against the Neonomians, that God’s law is determined and fixed by God’s immutable character. God cannot justly discard his law, nor can God justly accept imperfect obedience as the ground of partial justification because any justification requires perfect obedience to God’s law. Keach said that Christ had to keep the law of the original covenant of works on behalf of the elect as their substitute for them to be justified at all. Because the Neonomians denied this, Keach believed that they dishonored both God’s law and God’s holiness.23 But, the true covenant of grace is well-ordered because it honors and upholds God’s law and holiness.
Keach then argued 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 it 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.24
Application of the Doctrine
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 Antinomianism, 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. He further rebuked the Neonomians and Arminians who speak of the covenant of grace as though it is a covenant of works because that belittles the work of Christ and fails to recognize the full extent of what he accomplished. Keach also admonished everyone who tries to reform his life through moral efforts and legal strivings, since that 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.25
Keach then turned to exhortation. He 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.26 For Keach, the covenant of grace and justification by that covenant 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.
- Walker, Benjamin Keach, 107. See also J. Barry Vaughn, “Benjamin Keach,” in Baptist Theologians, ed. Timothy George and David Dockery (Nashville: Broadman, 1990), 58. For more information on covenant theology among Baptists, see Paul Fiddes, “’Walking Together’: The Place of Covenant Theology in Baptist Life Yesterday and Today,” in Pilgrim Pathways: Essays in Baptist History in Honour of B.R. White (Macon: Mercer, 1999), 44-74.
- 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.
- Ibid., 6. Italics are in the original.
- Though Keach does not make the argument explicitly, consistency would seem to require his opponents to admit that if the covenant with Christ and those in him must be two separate covenants because it is made both with the covenant head and those in the covenant head, then the covenant with Adam and those in him must be two separate covenants as well. The covenant of works would have to be divided into two covenants. But, his opponents evidently did not make that argument.
- For the development of the doctrine of the covenant of works in Reformed theology, see Robert Letham, “The Foedus Operum: Some Factors Accounting for its Development,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 4,4 (1983): 457-67. Letham argues that the covenant of works developed on a Ramist methodology in which law was viewed as foundational to and causative of grace. Law undergirds grace on classical federal theology.
- Keach, The Everlasting Covenant, 7.
- Ibid., 10. Italics are in the original.
- Keach did not refer to the Noahic covenant. Perhaps he did not view that covenant as being in the same category with the others.
- Keach, The Everlasting Covenant, 10-11.
- Ibid., 11-12.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 12-14.
- Ibid., 15-17.
- Ibid., 17-18.
- Many orthodox covenant theologians distinguish between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace without running to the extremes advocated by the Neonomians. For a Reformed Baptist description of the distinction, see Fred A. Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone, rev. and exp. (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2007), 50-52. For a Reformed paedobaptist discussion, see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (n.p., 1696; reprint, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 2:184-86 (page citations are to the reprint edition). For the history of this distinction among orthodox covenant theologians, see John Murray, “Covenant Theology,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:223-34; and John von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 63-77.
- Keach, The Everlasting Covenant, 20-21.
- Ibid., 22-24.
- Ibid., 24-27.
- Ibid., 28-29. The words “explicit” and “would” are uncertain due to the illegibility of the extant copies of the work.
- Ibid., 29-30.
- Ibid., 31-34.
- Ibid., 38-41.
- Ibid., 42-43.