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Copyright © February 9, 2018
This lesson will discuss some shortcomings of Covenant Theology and give a few examples of the exposure of the Puritan Covenant Theology by colonial dissenters. Some of the quotes are quite long, so the lesson is not as condensed as in other lessons in this short course.
As one Puritan preacher, in an attempt to remove objections of some against partaking of the Lord’s Supper because of fears of not being born again, preached in order to persuade them:
“The children of those who are members of the visible church are, by the constitution of God, from their first coming into existence, members of his kingdom in common with their parents. So it was under the Jewish dispensation; and so it is now, [under the Christian] if there is any validity in one of the principal arguments, by which we vindicate our practice, in baptizing the infants of those who are members of Christ’s church.”[i]
According to Covenant Theology, the main promise God made in the Covenant of Grace was: “I will … be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee (Ge. 17.7);” and “includes the following promises: temporal blessings, justification, adoption, eternal life, the Spirit of God with His many ministries, and final glorification.”[ii] Establishment of religion in Christianity depends upon this covenant. Isaac Backus taught, “All establishments of worship by human laws, that ever were erected under the Christian name, were built upon calling the covenant in Gen. xvii the covenant of grace.”
Mr. Backus goes on to point out that “Those who have seen the nature of original sin, cannot tell how to keep up the idea of children’s being born in the covenant of grace, without some regard to grace in their parents. And in the same chapter where the unbelieving consort is said to be sanctified by the believer, a widow is required to marry only in the Lord….” [He then refers to a parable wherein to make his point the author thereof describes a church which advised a member to marry a certain woman of grace in the church rather than a woman he loves who is not of grace. Of the woman of grace, the church says:]
- “As to some trifles, which a carnal man would object to, it becomes you as a spiritual man, to make no objection. It is true, she is of a mean family, and a very weak understanding; she is peevish and fretful to the highest degree; her shape is semicircular; she is what the world calls monstrous ugly; every feature is adapted to mortify carnal desires, which is much better than to have them gratified; she is the queen of sluts, and without any polite education. But she has grace, saving grace; she is regenerated; let your grace wed with hers, and a sweet bride she will be. Moreover, she is past the flower of her age, and we suppose need so requires.”
- Backus goes on to say that this parable can be applied to no church on earth, but says “[H]ow mean and spiteful it is to treat the Word Grace [in the manner treated by Covenant Theologians]! Affixing the word to the covenant of circumcision, where God never put it, is the source of [a difficulty of a church at Stockbridge where to be sanctified by the believer, a widow is required to marry only in the Lord].”[iii]
Most Covenant Theologians have divided postfall history into two dispensations, the Mosaic dispensation sometimes called the “Old Covenant,” and the Christian dispensation, usually called the “New Covenant;” and they claim that the Covenant of Grace, although administration of that covenant differed between the dispensations, exists throughout these dispensations. “[E]ach dispensation or covenant named in the Bible is simply another stage of the progressive revelation of the nature of the Covenant of Grace.”[iv]
Covenant Theology has many problems. Many of them are pointed out in more thorough studies by Jerald Finney such as God Betrayed/Separation of Church and State: The Biblical Principles and the American Application. Several significant shortcomings of Covenant Theology follow, repeating some already discussed:
- First its “ultimate goal of history[, also discussed supra, the Glory of God through the redemption of the elect,] is too narrow…. Second, Covenant Theology denies or weakens some of the distinctions which are in the Bible by insisting that distinctions are simply different phases of the same Covenant of Grace…. In addition, Covenant theology denies the existence of distinctive gospels in the Bible…. Covenant Theology insists that there is no essential distinction between the Mosaic Covenant (the Law) and the New Covenant…. Covenant theology also denies the distinction between the nation of Israel and the Church.… Third, Covenant Theology is mistaken when it teaches that each of the biblical covenants is a continuation and newer phase of the Covenant of Grace…. Fourth, Covenant Theology’s unifying principle is too limited or narrow. [First, Covenant Theology is too limited in that it unifies history through the Covenant of Grace from either the fall of man or the time of Abraham. It is too narrow because it deals only with God’s redemption of the elect, and it does not unify the program of redemption with all God’s other programs.] Second, … it does not unify prefall history with postfall history, which a valid exposition of the biblical philosophy of history must do…. Fifth, in order to make its system work, Covenant Theology must employ a double hermeneutic (a double system of interpretation)….”[v]
According to the Covenant Theologian, “the idea of dual covenants functioned as a warning against reliance on good works for salvation.” The Covenant of Works required obedience for salvation. According to the Covenant of Grace one could only be saved by faith in Christ.[vi]
Yet, the Covenant of Works remained in effect.
- “This meant, first, that New Englanders whom God had not yet called effectually into salvation remained entirely under a covenant of works and subject to its moral restraint. It meant also, according to Cotton, that the burden of moral expectation should drive the sensitive conscience to Christ. It was ‘the usuall manner of God to give a Covenant of Grace by leading men first into a Covenant of works.’ Living under the covenant of works, Shepard explained, they would discover their sinfulness, and their ‘terrors, and fears, and hopes’ would turn them to Christ. And it meant, third, that even Christians safely within the covenant of grace remained subject to the moral substance of the first covenant. Abolished as a ‘covenant of life,’ Shepard said, the law still remained a ‘Rule of Life.’ These were the traditional three uses of the law in Reformed theology; covenantal language provided a lively way to restate them.”[vii]
Covenant Theologians teach that God’s commands are “too severe even for Adam in innocency, and that grace[, through the covenant of circumcision and its successor, baptism,] gives an exemption from that severity,” under the Covenant of Grace.
Covenant Theology, which does not recognize or correctly analyze the roles of the Old and New Covenants, is at odds with a correct interpretation of the Bible on this issue. Isaac Backus, in exposing the New England Puritan theology, explained:
- “[The law is holy, just, and good]; it [is] spiritual; but [man] a carnal slave to sin, instead of having such high dignity and liberty as he before imagined he had…. A false imagination of good in the forbidden fruit, drew our first parents into rebellion against God; and such imaginations are the only source of sin in all their children. James i. 14, 15. Good is still their pursuit, but they have lost the knowledge of who can give it, or of what it is; but the regenerate soul knows both, and this is the precise difference between them. Psalm iv. 6, 7. Who does not know that debtors and criminals are not fit judges in their own causes? [Y]et that is the case with all reasoners against the truth and perfection of God’s written word…. And to hear many speaking evil of things they know not, but what they know naturally as brute beasts, and in those things to corrupt themselves; to see them tread down the good pastures, and foul the deep waters, and thrust others with side and shoulder, serves to confirm believers in the truth of revelation, and in the hope of a speedy deliverance from such evil beasts. Jude 10. Ezek. xxxiv. 18, 25.”[viii]
To show that God has “disannulled the national covenant which he made with Abraham,” Backus offered the following insights:
- “First, Abraham had no right to circumcise any stranger, until he had bought him as a servant for money. Gen. xvii. 12, 13. But God says to his children, Ye are bought with a price, be not ye the servants of men. I Cor. vii. 23. And he says to his ministers, Feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood. Acts xx. 28. He also says, Ye have sold yourselves for nought, and ye shall be redeemed without money. And this is the gospel of peace. Is. lii. 3, 7; Rom. x. 15. Thus do the apostles explain the prophets. Secondly, The children of Israel had no right to receive strangers into the church by households, until the day in which they came out of Egypt, when the Passover was instituted. And then God said, Every man’s servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. Exod. xii. 44—48. Circumcision and the Passover were as binding upon servants as children; and both ordinances pointed to the blood of Christ, which he was to shed for his people. And in reference to that, God said, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; 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. Jer. xxxi. 31, 32. And an inspired apostle says, In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. viii. 7—13; x. 9. And can old and new, first and second, mean but one covenant? Surely no. Thirdly, Circumcision is the name which God gave to his covenant with Abraham. Acts vii. 8. And though Jews and Mahometans are still zealous for it, yet all Christians allow that circumcision is repealed. But after the apostolic age, men took away the name which God gave to that covenant, and added the name Grace to it; and they held that dominion is founded in grace. And from thence the nations have made merchandise of all the vanities of time, and of slaves and souls of men. But the plagues of Babylon will come upon all men who add to the word of God, and take away from the words of his book, if they refuse to come out of that practice. Rev. xviii. 4—13; xxii. 18, 19. And there is not a word in all the Bible for bringing any child to baptism without his own profession of faith in Christ, nor for forcing any man to support any religious minister; and all national churches are built upon these two superstitions. Fourthly, Circumcision was the shedding of human blood; and when Abraham received it, it was a seal of righteousness of the faith which he before had in Christ, in whom believers are justified by his blood. Rom. iv. 11, 23; v. 9; Gal. iii. 16; Gen. xv. 6; xvii. 24. It was a seal to him; but neither circumcision nor baptism are ever called seals to any other person in the Bible. But God says to true believers in Christ, In whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise. And he also says, Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Eph. i. 13; iv. 30. After believing in Christ, the Holy Spirit seals the merits of his death, and the promises of his grace to the soul. And all believers from the beginning, looked through the bloody ordinances which God appointed, to the blood of Christ for justification. And after the beast arose out of the bottomless pit, God said, All that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Rev. xiii. 8. Force and cruelty is the general character of the beast; but Jesus, who is the root and offspring of David, will cause all evil beasts to cease out of the land. Ezek. xxxiv. 4, 25; Rev. xxii. 16. Fifthly, the believing Jews were suffered to go on in circumcision for a number of years past the death of Christ, and then God said to them, If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. …. Whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace. Gal. v.2—4. So far was the covenant of circumcision from being the covenant of grace. That bloody sign not only pointed to the death of Christ, but also to the death of all true believers in him. Therefore Paul says, I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts. Gal. ii. 19, 20; v. 22-24. Adam and Christ are the only two public heads of mankind, as to the great affairs of the soul and eternity. For as by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners; so by the obedience of one, shall many be made righteous. Rom. v. 19. For parents to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, is of infinite importance; but we can find no warrant for any to bring them to baptism without a personal profession of faith in Christ….
- “God said of Abraham, I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him. Gen. xviii. 19. He will and They shall, was the language of God’s covenant with Abraham; but I will, and They shall, is the language of the new covenant, since the death of Christ. Heb. viii. 10; x. 9. It was the will of God that the visible church should continue in the line of Abraham’s posterity, until Christ came and died for his people, and then the holy spirit was given, and believing Jews and Gentiles were united in his church. And they never were called Christians, until believing Gentiles were received into the church without circumcision….
- “[T]he holding that the children of believers are born into the covenant of grace, or that baptism can bring them into it, without their own knowledge or choice, is such a confounding of grace and works together as holds multitudes in blindness and bondage.”[ix]
We should look at the Dispensation of Grace to find the duties of believers today.
Who are the true seed of Abraham? Mr. Backus again correctly divided the Word of Truth in answering this question:
- “Circumcision was only for males, but females are equally the subjects of baptism, which proves an essential change of the covenant. And our Lord gave the gospel commission to the eleven, who were all born again; and he said to them, Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy ghost; teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. Matt. xxviii. 16—20. This promise is only to his children, in the way of obedience to all his commandments. And as the covenant of circumcision gave Israel a right to buy the heathen for servants, and circumcision was only for the males, the gospel says to believers, Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s then ye are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Gal. iii.26—29. Abraham was an eminent type of Christ, and none are his spiritual seed but believers in Christ.” (, pp. 370-371).
Again, this is only a small sampling. For more, see Isaac Backus Quotes from God Betrayed; Roger Williams: Quotes and Other Information from God Betrayed; or, for the most thorough treatment God Betrayed/Separation of Church and State: The Biblical Principles and the American Application.
[i] Isaac Backus, A History of New England With Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, Volume 2 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, Previously published by Backus Historical Society, 1871), p. 171.
[ii] Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology (Bellmawr, New Jersey: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990), p. 14, citing Berkhof, p. 277.
[iii] Backus, A History of New England…, Volume 2, pp. 238-241.
[iv] Showers, pp. 14-16, citing Berkhof, pp. 282-283 and Ernest Frederick Kevan, “Dispensation,” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, editor-in-chief, Everett F. Harrison (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1960), p. 168.
[v] Showers, pp. 19-25 citing Berkof, pp. 298, 300; Bernhard W. Anderson, “The New Covenant and The Old,” in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, ed. by Bernard W. Anderson (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 232; and Johannes Behm, “kainos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III, ed. by Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, pp. 447, 448, 449. See Showers for a more detailed explanation of the deficiencies listed.
[vi] E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sheridan Books, 2003), p. 40.
[viii] Backus, A History of New England…, Volume 2, p. 254.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 364-366, 371-372, 373.