New Covenant Nonsense: Covenant Theology

This is part of a series of posts on New Covenant Nonsense. Click here to see the entire series.


To describe the essentials of covenant theology I have selected two historic Reformed confessions. Those documents are the London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have extracted the statements relevant to covenant theology from each of these confessions and they are quoted below:

The Westminster Confession of Faith says this about the doctrine of the covenant:

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 except by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, and this He has been pleased to express in the form of a covenant….Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant (‘That covenant’ is a reference to the ‘covenant of works’ which had been previously stated in this confession as a covenant God made with Adam prior to the fall. The Baptists rejected the notion of a ‘covenant of works’ and did not include it in their confession, ed.), the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the Covenant of Grace: whereby he freely offered 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 life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the scripture by the name of a Testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belong to it, therein bequeathed. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel; under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.
Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says this about the doctrine of the covenant:

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 except by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, and this He has been pleased to express in the form of a covenant. Moreover, as man had brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace. In this covenant He freely offers to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring from them faith in Him that they may be saved, and promising to give to all who are appointed to eternal life His Holy Spirit to make them willing and able to believe.

This covenant is revealed through the Gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by further steps until the full revelation of it became complete in the New Testament. The covenant of salvation rests upon an eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect. It is solely by the grace of this covenant that all the descendants of fallen Adam who have ever been saved have obtained life and blessed immortality, because man is now utterly incapable of gaining acceptance with God on the terms by which Adam stood in his state of innocence.

Although the Baptists and Presbyterians were united in their belief in regards to the “covenant of grace” in general, there are significant differences between the two confessions on the doctrine of the covenant of grace in particular. Both parties agreed that God saved His people by means of the covenant of grace. Both parties agreed that His people were saved by this covenant both under the Old and New testaments. Both parties agreed that membership in the covenant of grace was determined by the Triune God before the creation of the universe. As the London confession says, ” The covenant of salvation rests upon an eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect.” Both parties, however, did not agree on all elements of the covenant of grace.

The Westminster Confession goes into much greater detail about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and how both fit into the covenant of grace. The London Baptist Confession omits, or ignores, all of these items. Indeed, the entire Old Testament period is described as a period in which God simply took “further steps” in revealing His plan of salvation. Those further steps are not described or detailed in any way.

The Westminster Confession goes into great detail describing the relationship of the sacraments in the two testaments. The logically necessary connection between circumcision and baptism is made. The unity of the two testaments had been an essential part of Reformed theology from the time of Calvin. Indeed, Calvin devoted two entire chapters in his “Institutes” to the topic. The Baptists were aware of this fact but made the decision to ignore the doctrines that were, in the mind of the Presbyterians, logically necessary if the doctrine of the covenant of grace was true. This, of course, allowed the Baptists to preserve their doctrine of credo-baptism.

It is my assertion that the Baptists were able to maintain their doctrine of credo-baptism only because they made the conscious decision to not push the doctrine of the covenant of grace to it’s logical conclusion with respect to the sacraments. The Presbyterians had done so and integrated it into their confession. The Baptists did not. The end result was a factionalized church in which a great deal of energy was expended in throwing theological bombs and calling each other names. That, of course, has continued down to this day. The war between credo-baptists and paedo-baptists continues.

Despite all of the theological infighting over the doctrine of baptism, a truce of sorts managed to evolve. Each group realized it was not going to change the other and Baptists and Presbyterians were able to coexist. Presbyterians accused Baptists of not following through on their doctrine of the covenant of grace and Baptists accused Presbyterians of going too far with their doctrine of the covenant of grace. Then, the new covenant theologians came along. They changed all the rules.

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