Sunday, December 13, 2015

Covenants Defined X - Hoist and Raise the Kiddies

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Well you’ve probably guessed where this is going. As a result of a sustained amount of intense study on covenants I’m now much more Presbyterian than Baptist (though let me hasten to add that I’m not fully sold on household baptism yet).
It seems that the path I’ve taken to get here is very different from the others I’ve talked to, since they summarized their reason for switching as, “the warning passages made more sense this way.”

To be sure there’s something to that—how else can you be in Christ and be lost unless the covenant is larger than salvation? And in Romans 11 it doesn’t say the Gentiles were grafted onto the tree by faith to begin with, it only says that they may be broken off if they become unbelievers. That makes a good case that the New Covenant is larger than belief, which would mean both the regenerate and non-regenerate are in it. 
There’s also something to be said for how the Presbyterian scheme makes better sense out of 1 Cor 7 and the other child inclusive passages. Paul instructs the children to obey their parents, but if the Baptists were right he should rather have said, “parents, make sure your children obey you.” Instead it’s “children obey your parents in the Lord,” indicating he’s talking to the children who are a part of the church. Good point.

However for me the pivotal battle took place in the Baptist stronghold of Jeremiah 31:

“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

A Brief Background

These statements echo the warnings and chastisements found elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah exactly. By the time we get to chapter 31 we’ve already seen how the Levites refused to teach the law to everyone (Jer 2:8) and how Israel refused to worship God (Jer 7:23-24). We saw how the people didn’t want to know the Lord (Jer 9:5-7), for their desire from the least to the greatest was to do evil (Jer 6:13). As a result their sins were multiplying out of control (Jer 30:15). The sum of which is that Israel stubbornly refused to obey God until He brought down the curses upon them and sent them into exile.

It’s into this background of disobedience that the promise of the new covenant comes. This time the law will reach the people. This time God will pour out His blessing on them for keeping it. This time they will not refuse to know the Lord, but will all, from the least to the greatest know Him. This time He will forgive their sins. This time there will be no exile.

And why is that? Because it was made with a better people? As a Baptist that’s what I’d always assumed of course. I thought that the reason God made the new covenant with the elect rather than the mixed multitude was so that He could be assured they’d not break it this time. But that’s wrong because apart from the work of God there is no difference between us and them. 
The Presbyterians come away from this subjective idea a little bit by saying that although some of the people will break the covenant, enough will be faithful that the covenant curses stay at arms length. They’d conceded the bulk of the argument to the Baptists in agreeing that blessings are predicated on the faithfulness of the people, but they’d also added a minor secondary reason of God’s faithfulness. That small idea when stoked by Doug Van Dorn’s Reformed Baptist Covenant Primer would prove to be my undoing.

I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel

With apologies to all the academics and Calmenians out there, there are only two ways of understanding Jeremiah 31: either God is unveiling the mystery of personal salvation (the subjective, Baptist reading) or He’s making a promise and revelation about Jesus (the objective, Presbyterian one).

In favor of the Presbyterian view is the fact that the Mosaic covenant wasn’t instituted to save the people, but to show them their sins. There was a priest, but it was impossible for him to take away sin (Heb 10:4). There was an intercessor pleading for mercy, but God’s response was to effectively ignore him, saying, “I will have mercy upon those whom I will have mercy.”

Also in favor of the Presbyterian view is the fact that all the other covenants except the one to Levi are about Jesus, and include us by extension, rather than us. It makes sense that the one to Levi is now going to be taken by Christ and lifted up, so that Christ may be all and in all.

For these reasons the Baptist errs in compressing the New Covenant to be a subjective work that terminates on the elect. The correct understanding of it is that God is building on the framework He established previously at Sinai. This time there’s going to be a mediator who puts the law not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of the people. This time someone will actually keep the law before God. This time the intermediary will do all God asks of Him. This time there will be no separation between God and His people, for the priest will make an offering that actually atones for sin.

That’s Jesus. And notice that this new covenant is first and foremost His work toward the Father. He makes a sacrifice. He is the offering. He is the priest. He bears the wrath. These are all objective things. The temple curtain is torn, the need for animal sacrifices is ended. Men are now saveable. That’s why the covenant curses will never fall. That’s why there will be no more exile. The New Covenant can’t be broken—because Christ has lived the perfect sinless life and by His death has propitiated the wrath of the Father. Whether the people stay on God’s good side or not, it’s eternally, unchangeably true that Christ is the mediator of a new and better covenant, purchased by His blood.

I say first and foremost because while new covenant is the full and final revelation of Christ, personal salvation is the direct outgrowth of it. Christ has reconciled God to us in the New Covenant, but now God is going to use that work to reconcile us to Him in salvation. This human side now involves the work of the Holy Spirit, the act of regeneration, and the application of Christs purchased pardon on our behalf, whereas the objective side didn’t involve us at all. That’s why union with Christ and being under the New Covenant promises aren’t equivalent. It’s the difference between having understanding and having belief. It’s the difference between having the sheet music in front of you and playing the piece. The New Covenant is the external reality that makes inward salvation possible. We can see its effects best on those who are regenerated and trust in Christ, but it’s not equivalent to that. That’s why Abraham circumcised everyone in his house but was counted righteous by faith in the promises.

The Proof

The longer I looked at the Baptist view in Jeremiah 31 the more the cracks began to show. Was ‘they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest’ really abolishing evangelism? Was it a revelation of regeneration? If it was then how could it also be the promise itself that the Baptists claim? If this passage is the cornerstone of Baptist doctrine and its not holding up then what does? Even so it wasn’t this doubt which settled the objective interpretation as being correct in my own mind, it was seeing the consequences of it played out in the rest of the Bible that did it.

For if the Baptist understanding of the New Covenant (subjective salvation) is correct, then we should see a New Testament book on salvation take up the text and explain it. Romans, for example, the treatise on justification by faith alone, should at some point deal with the text. But it doesn’t. The only mention of the New Covenant is in Rom 11:27, and that’s only quoted offhand for applicational purposes, not for explanatory purposes.

If however the Presbyterians were right then the promises of Jeremiah 31 belong in a book like Hebrews which shows Christ to be a priest, a law giver, a prophetic mediator, and a perfect law keeper (notice they are all objective things). And that’s exactly where we find them. Accept the Presbyterian model and you get the book of Hebrews. It’s all there, the covenant warnings, the person of Christ, the objective and subjective work, even the positional ordering of the ideas matches.

So that’s the brief sketch of why I switched. I now grudgingly admit the Presbyterians were right about the New Covenant all along and I wasn’t.

So that’s it. Let me wrap this up by giving one final word of warning for all the Classic Calvinist Baptists out there: tread lightly my friends. You may think your position is robust, but you don’t realize how fragile the thing really is. Unless you’re clad in the armor of the Federalist High Calvinism then be very very careful about studying covenants (do it ever so lightly). And if in the future if you start to see salvation as being procured in an objective fashion for the elect and then given in subjective fashion to them, run for the hills and never think such thoughts again. Or you'll end up like me.

Continue on to one more thought in passing


Anonymous said...


Couple of questions in all seriousness (meaning...just because I'm anonymous you don't have to assault me with the "Ann-onymous" label. Just receive the questions for what they're worth)

1. You said, "The temple curtain is torn, the need for animal sacrifices is ended. Men are now saveable." An obvious reading of this sentence implies that prior to Jesus men were NOT saveable. What meanest thou?

2. Would you also advocate paedocommunion? You expressed some hesitation with the household baptism thing but do you find it a consistent reading to extend ALL of the covenant privileges to all of the covenant members?

3. You finished with, "Let me wrap this up by giving one final word of warning for all the Classic Calvinist Baptists out there: tread lightly my friends." I'm not sure how you would classify your newest identity (Davenant 3.0? Hypothetical-Presbyterian-but-Anti-Covenant-of-Works?). I might suggest that since you seem to be sharing your new-found delight with the enlightened understanding you have in real time fashion that you take a swig of your own medical advice--tread lightly yourself. Exhibit some modicum of humility.

Phil said...

Thanks for the comment Al. In response:
1. I think it's evident that God was unable to reconcile sinful men to Himself before Christ. Hence the existence of purgatory where the souls of men went. That would be where Jesus went after He died.
2. No, I don't think I would. I'm not even sure about padeo-baptism yet, although I do find house hold baptism to fit the data pretty well. I'll be thinking about this more in the coming days but I haven't made up my mind one way or another.
3. Davenant 2.0 still sounds good to me, considering it's a joke. To give you a real answer I'd say I'm a hypothetical universalist presbyterian who attends a baptist church. And while I like to come down pretty hard on the covenant of works/covenant of life/covenant at creation model in this blog if you're just using the word to mean that Adam was created as a son by a person God and given moral boundaries then okay, sure, that's cool. It's just sort of unnecessary and easy to balloon outward if you're not careful.

But that warning is a serious thing and I don't see what pride or humility has to do with it. If you're a high Calvinist federal baptist then you really are totally impervious to the argument that I make here. It's not going to occur to you and if it did you'd throw it away immediately. If you start as a moderate like I did however then the thing has you almost as soon as someone points it out.
It's come with problems for my family, first and foremost with the wife. She's higher than I am, and now we've had to have a number of long (and might I say unpleasant) discussions on the meaning and implications of this. Will we have to change churches? Will our current church accept me? Etc. It's only fair that I give a real warning based on my experiences that this has grave repercussions and you need to be aware of what you're getting into and what it's going to do to you. It's very exciting for me to put together a piece of the puzzle I didn't have before, but it's also prone to make a mess of things. Sort of like running into someone you used to go to church at the park and being tempted to ask why they left. Sure you can ask, but it's a serious thing to do so, so be ready for the answer.

Anonymous said...


Some reply thoughts....

1. Honestly, my initial read led me to think, "he's kidding." Further (and subsequent) reading caused me to take your statement at face value, leading me to say, "Really? Purgatory?!?" I must confess I didn't see that one coming. I recognize that there are a small number of evangelicals who have found fascination with the doctrine of purgatory but Rome pretty much has a monopoly on this one so I'm not sure how purgatory got its hooks into you. "Big picture" alarms are going off here for me in areas dealing with the doctrines of sanctification and imputation. If we are “in Christ” we ARE perfect, because His perfection is imputed to us, just as our sins are imputed to Him. Moreover, just as Christ really did bear our sins in His body–indeed, and just as He was “made” sin for us (2 Cor 5:21)–our unity with Christ is a literal reality, so that His perfection really is ours. Besides, if there is a Purgatory through which we can be perfected and readied for Heaven, why did Christ have to die for us? Why wouldn’t we just go through a variable period of purgation after death as our way of salvation? I think I hear Davenant 1.0 groaning from the proverbial grave ("I do not believe in purgatory. Why? Because reason can collect from no part of Scripture, according to the rules of good and sound logic, the truth of this doctrine. This use of reason and logic in sacred things, God is so far from condemning, that he requires it of all: nay, for this end he plants in human minds certain laws of judging, and of discerning truth from falsehood, certainty form uncertainty, consequential from unconsequential reasoning, that we may use this light of reason in all things, and especially in Divine matters. Eph 5:17; 4:14; 1 Thes 5:21" An Exposition on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, Vol 1, p396-7. Also, in his Treatise on Justification, Vol 2, in a question dealing with prayers and oblations on behalf of the dead, (Davenant) says, "He who, from such an oblation, would endeavour to deduce a purgatory or liberation of the faithful from the pains of purgatory, should be banished to Anticyra."

2. Am I understanding you to say that you believe the presbyterians are correct in their covenantal understanding but you DO NOT HOLD to paedo baptism? Honestly, I don't even have a category to file this one under. Nevertheless, I do find it interesting that, for a typical presbyterian, paedocommunion is verboten when, as a particular baptist, I see both paedobaptism AND paedocommunion as a much more consistent position. Search out some intramural (presbyterian) debates on the paedocommunion issue and you will hear some VERY familiar argumentation AGAINST admitting the little ones to the table that mirror precisely the baptist arguments for who should be admitted to the waters of baptism.

3. I'm going to invoke the Granville-Sharp rule here and suggest that the proper exegesis of "I'm a hypothetical universalist presbyterian who attends a baptist church" means a hypothetical universalist hypothetical presbyterian who attends (for now) a baptist church. I do appreciate your candor with regards to the tension this newfound delight has created for you and your wife. Dwelling with her according to knowledge might prove useful here. FWIW, pride and humility has everything to do with the discussion, both in the home and in your church.

Phil said...

1. Well just because there's no such place as purgatory now doesn't mean there's never been such a place. I think the evidence that before Christ people were unable to be in God's presence is pretty strong. John 3:13 is clear that nobody's actually made it up there until that point in history. Jesus says in John 20:17 not to cling to Him because He's not yet gone back to the Father. So where did He go in the meantime? Certainly the witch of Endor can't be calling Samuel out of the presence of God, but up from the place of the dead, hence, purgatory. The Catholic version is very different from this idea, and unquestionably amounts to a total denial of justification by faith--but the OT idea of sheol seems not only orthodox, but essential.

2. Yeah, it's weird right? I'm clearly in some kind of excluded middle, or unstable state, but unless I have clarity enough to explain it to a 4 year old I don't trust to switch yet. My conscience is still a little bothered by baptizing my 1 year old (although less than before), having not studied out the objections. And to that, I still see padeo-communion and padeo-baptism as belonging together as well. I guess that's the baptist in me talking. For now I'll differ, and I'll try it with Presby glasses before making any firm judgments. I suppose that will have to be the next thing after I get the first sacrament sorted out, right?

3. I suppose that's right, hypothetically speaking you could well say that I'm a hypothetical universalist hypothetical presbyterian attending a high Calvinist federalistic Baptist church which is of the Mark Dever stripe. Fair enough to say that not being an actual padeobaptist yet probably means something, although I don't know what. But it would also be true to say given my understanding of God's election that I'm a 5 point Calvinist, or simply to call me a Protestant, or going even more generic, a sinner saved by grace. I see what I do simply because God has decided it be so.

But here again, I don't see what that has to do with pride. It's easy to drop in anonymously and say "your pride is great! You are full of it!" (and said comment is practically mandatory nowadays on any religious blog that take a strong position). To which my response is: 'Sure. That's the deadly disease that runs in all Adams sons.' And?
Often however it's used to mean something like, "you have conviction and a willingness to hold fast to a belief set I find wrong." To which my response is a firm, "meh." I wouldn't be a Calvinist if I didn't take bold steps forward, and such bold steps by their very nature offend.
That gun points both ways though, so since you're a particular baptist let's agree to call it a draw and consider if what I've said is true. Not if it offends or strikes a nerve, just is it true that you were unimpressed with my reasoning here? My model tells me you were.