The following article was first written by myself in 2021 for CovenantConfessions.com and can be found here…
“What is the difference between paedobaptist and baptist covenant theology?”
I get this question more often than any other. Whether it’s during a conversation in the courtyard at church or via a direct message on social media, many often wonder what separates two brothers within the same tradition? In the Reformed tradition, covenant theology is how we see God dealing with His people throughout redemptive history. We see God condescending towards His people and doing so by way of making covenants with them. Covenants such as the covenant of redemption made between the Triune Godhead before creation, the covenant of works made with Adam in the garden, the covenant of grace which was first presented to Adam in the garden (Gen. 3:15), the covenant of circumcision made with Abraham, the Noahic covenant made with Noah and all of creation, the Mosaic covenant made with the nation of Israel, the Davidic covenant, and last and most important the New Covenant. How one defines these Biblical covenants produces results such as believers-only Baptism, infant baptism, and the like. One of the most important distinctions between these two brothers (paedobaptist and the confessional baptist) is how one views the covenant of grace. In his book From Shadow to Substance, Samuel Renihan describes how many early confessional baptists described the covenant of grace…
“In their Confession, the Particular Baptists directly tied the covenant of grace to the Gospel. Where the gospel is found, there is the covenant of grace.”
For many of these early Baptists, all of the Old Covenant was subservient to this covenant of grace. They saw that when you examine each covenant on its own, what you would find is both a continuity and diversity that needed to be accounted for. In other words, when you let each covenant in the Old Testament speak for itself, the result is one much different from their paedobaptist brethren. Instead of flattening out all of the covenants of the Old Testament by turning them into one covenant of grace that was administered differently and at different times, many of the confessional baptists chose to distinguish each covenant from the covenant of grace, providing a much more consistent covenant theology that was found in the Scriptures. For example, it allowed the covenant of works made with Adam to remain in the garden, the Noahic Covenant to be a covenant given to all of creation (including animals) and not specifically for the church. It allowed the Abrahamic covenant to be the “covenant of circumcision” that Stephen describes in Acts 7:8. It allowed the Mosaic covenant to be a covenant of works that governed the Israelites in the land of milk and honey. It allowed the Davidic covenant to introduce a line of royalty that would one day produce the true Son of David in King Jesus. It also allowed the new covenant described by both the prophets, Jesus Christ, and His apostles to actually be new, and not just sort of new. What does all of this mean? All of these O.T. covenants were not the covenant of grace. Although they contained grace within them, the early Baptists did not make the same mistake as their paedobaptist brethren by flattening them all into one covenant of grace. These covenants that made up what the Scriptures refer to as the Old Covenant would often contain grace and promises of rewards while concurrently making threats to those who did not hold up their end of the covenant. For many of the early Baptists, these O.T. Covenants could not be thecovenant of grace on their own because, for them, only the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace.
The New Covenant
In chapter 7 and paragraph 3 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the new covenant is described as such…
“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 the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and 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 posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon these terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency” (emphasis added).
This confessional statement provides us with the very distinctions I have already mentioned above concerning the New Covenant. I placed an emphasis above on the points I will discuss below.
First revealed to Adam
Since many of the early Baptists connected the Gospel with the covenant of grace, this covenant was introduced to God’s people not at the cross but rather in the garden with Adam…
“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” – Genesis 3:15 (KJV)
For the early Baptists, not only was this the first promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but this confessional statement declares that the outworking of this promise would be the remaining storyline of the entire Scriptures. This promise of salvation was given to Adam and Eve just after the punishment of the serpent and just before their own punishment was given to them by God. Even before their punishment for eating of the tree, God was gracious to them in sharing the promise of the Gospel to them in Genesis 3:15!
By Farther Steps
The Gospel would grow. In From Shadow to Substance, Samuel Renihan describes this growth…
“As the Gospel was progressively made known throughout history, the covenant of grace was progressively known throughout history.”
This means that today we have a much clearer Gospel than Adam had in the garden, Moses had on Mt. Sinai, or even Abraham had on Mt. Moriah. I did not say that these saints did not have access to the same Gospel as we do today; I stated that we have a clearer Gospel than the saints of old. The Bible tells us that the saints of old looked forward to better things…
For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” – Hebrews 11:10 (KJV)
God’s people of the Old Testament were saved by looking past the types and shadows of the Old Covenant to the fulfillment of those things, which was the Christ! As the Gospel was progressively made known throughout redemptive history, the covenant of grace was progressively revealed throughout redemptive history (by farther steps). Therefore, the New Covenant was made known throughout redemptive history because all saints of all time were only saved by the new covenant. All of this was grounded in a covenant made between the triune Godhead before creation.
Founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect
Not only did the early Baptists equate the gospel with the covenant of grace, but they also found the foundation of the covenant to be the covenant of redemption made between the triune Godhead before creation. The Gospel of John provides clarity for us concerning this covenant made in eternity past…
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day..”John 6:37-40, 44 (ESV)
From eternity past, the Father would send the Son. As a reward for the Son, The Father would also give the Son a people for Himself. The Son would be born of a virgin, under the law, and live a sinless life for these people, raising from the dead while receiving all of these people by the power of the Holy Spirit and promising to raise them on the last day. This passage and many like it describe this eternal transaction between the triune God of which the early Baptists made the foundation of the covenant of grace. Although Christ is the second and better Adam, Christ did not fulfill Adam’s covenant of works made in the garden. Rather, Christ fulfilled His own covenant of works, which was the covenant of redemption made in eternity past.
Alone by the grace of this covenant that all posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life
Not only did many of the early confessional Baptists equate the promise of the Gospel with the covenant of grace, but they also connected the covenant of grace with the New Covenant. All saints of all time have only been saved in one way, and that is by the blood of Jesus Christ. All who claim to be a part of the Reformed tradition should be able to proclaim this boldly. But describing how this is actually accomplished is something different altogether. Because many of the early Baptists connected the promise of the Gospel with the covenant of grace and the covenant of grace with the new covenant, we can proudly and consistently say today that all of Gods saints of old have been saved in the same exact way that saints of today are saved. They were saved by faith in the promise of the Gospel in Genesis 3:15. This promise was progressively revealed through redemptive history by farther steps, and those who looked past the types and shadows of the Old Covenant were saved. Saints of today are saved by looking back to the finished works a Jesus Christ. For example, by connecting these things, the Baptists believed Abraham was saved by something outside of the Abrahamic covenant; he was saved by faith in the promises of God and would receive that alien righteousness that came to him by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. Again, this alien righteousness came from something outside of the Abrahamic covenant and not the Abrahamic covenant itself. It came from the New Covenant, by way of the Covenant of Grace, that the Abrahamic Covenant was subservient to. Abraham may not have had the clarity of the Gospel that we have today, but regardless he looked beyond Canaan to better days (John 8:56). The new covenant is different in substance than the old covenant. Unlike the required obedience and potential curses of the covenants of old, the new covenant provides freely what it demands. This would include a new heart, the forgiveness of sins, and no threats of curses if one side did not keep up their end of the deal.
I hope that this was a helpful reminder of God fulfilling His promises for the many. May we be encouraged that God does indeed keep His promises. The New Covenant reaches back through history by way of the covenant of grace. John the Baptist prepared the way for the New Covenant (Mark 1:6-8). We know that Christ brought the New Covenant (Luke 22:20), that Paul was a minister of the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6), and that all saints of all time have been saved only by way of the New Covenant. That’s why the confessional baptists of old, as well as the ones of today, can boldly proclaim that it is by this new covenant alone that life is given, sins are forgiven, and former enemies are made children of the living God!
Soli Deo Gloria