Module 1 | Overview of Covenant theology: how God has historically identified his people

Let’s provide a brief glossary. Though not all these terms will be used again, each will be important foundation to keep in mind for our study.

Paedobaptism: From the Greek word pais, meaning “child,” paedobaptism, or infant baptism, is the practice of baptizing infants or young children not on account of their profession of faith, but on account of the faith profession of their parents. Thus, paedobaptists are “child baptizers.”

Credobaptism: From the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe,” credobaptism, or believer’s baptism, is the practice of baptizing Christians who make a personal profession of faith. (Note: A common misconception of paedobaptism is that it rejects believer’s baptism. Paedobaptism agrees with credobaptism for first-generation Christians, which will be explained in detail later.)

Antipaedobaptism: The view that opposes the baptism of infants. The distinction between this and credobaptism is that antipaedobaptism exclusively holds to believer’s baptism. Antipaedobaptists contend that according to Scripture, the reception of baptism is, in all cases, conditioned on an active faith revealing itself in a creditable confession.

Baptismal regeneration: The position that holds baptism is required for a person to be spiritually regenerated; in other words, born again, made a Christian who is inhabited by the Holy Spirit. Reformed-thinking Christians hold that baptismal regeneration overstates the close relationship between the baptism rite and the inward conferral of divine grace.

Presumptive regeneration: The assumption that children of believers are automatically themselves born again, just because they are born to believers and eligible for baptism as members of the covenant community. Among Evangelical Christians, including paedobaptists in the mainstream of the Reformed tradition, presumptive regeneration is widely considered an erroneous overstatement of children’s covenant status. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the belief of presumptive regeneration became rather prevalent, especially in the Netherlands, when Dr. Abraham Kuyper initially spoke of presumptive regeneration as the ground of infant baptism, though he later abandoned this language (for a more comprehensive discussion, see Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, pp. 547-548).

Mode of baptism: The means, i.e., immersion (and emersion), pouring, or sprinking, by which the water of baptism is administered.

Covenant: From the Hebrew berith and the Greek diatheke, a covenant is a solemn agreement in Scripture, either negotiated or unilaterally imposed. Dr. O. Palmer Robertson’s classic definition is, “A bond-in-blood, sovereignly administered.” A covenant is no less than a contract between two parties, yet it’s much more than that. In bringing His people into oath-bound relationship with Himself, God is a generous benefactor who makes His children the beneficiaries of an earthly and eternal inheritance. All covenants are conditional to some extent, and are legally binding and specific in their benefits and their obligations on both parties. Covenant is used in Reformed theology as a categorical term to describe God’s way of dealing with His creation at large, and His chosen people in particular. In divine covenants, God sovereignly sets the relationship and its attendant stipulations with His creatures, and binds Himself by His own oath to keep His promises.

Covenant sign: God’s visible and external mark that signifies (points to) and reminds of the invisible and spiritual reality of His unity with His people. As a sign, baptism depicts and confirms the truth of God’s promise in Christ, which includes, among other features, the blessings that are given to those who exercise faith in the gospel message which is heard.

Covenant seal: In various societies of the ancient Near East, contracts, treaties, accords and personal letters often were authenticated with a wax seal or signet ring bearing a personal emblem, such as from a king, administrator or patriarch. In a promissory covenant, when this seal was affixed to such a document, it vouched as a visible pledge by the author to honor what he promised to carry out when the conditions it listed were met by the other party. Circumcision and baptism function as physical markers of the same spiritual truth: belonging to God. Berkhof wrote, “Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It does not signify one thing and seal another, but sets the seal of God on that which it signifies.” (Systematic Theology, p. 549) As such, baptism confirms that saving grace can be found only in Christ.

Federalism/federal headship: A precedent in Scripture in which a group of people is united under a federation or family-based covenant, and is represented by a federal head. At its most basic, federalism views Adam as the first representative of the human race and Christ as the second representative. Since Adam, our first father, who represented us, sinned, we are all considered guilty, too. Christ then obeyed God’s law where Adam failed to obey God’s covenant. As the second representative of the human race, Christ secures salvation for all those who believe the gospel (Romans 5:18). This principle of federal headship is found in different echelons of ancient Near Eastern societies, from government, to the most basic unit of the household.

Corporate solidarity: Closely related to the concept of federalism, corporate solidarity holds that a group of people may be so identified with an individual person, that what is true of an individual often is principally true of the entire group. Throughout the biblical economy, we observe God working His grace as well as His judgment, through families. For example, the human race issued forth from Adam and Eve, and they in their individual disobedience spread their disobedience to all their progeny (Genesis 3:15-20, cf. Romans 5:12-18). Later, those who seek the Lord are identified as the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who receive the physical blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham (Isaiah 51:1-2, Galatians 3:7-9, 28-29, Romans 4:11-12). In its specific application to Christ, this interpretive scheme of corporate solidarity means that the Messiah must assume and fulfill all the obligations, expectations and experiences of his people, because (Hebrews 2:17) “… he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

Pactum Salutis: Literally “pact of salvation,” the Pactum Salutis is also known as a “covenant of redemption” originating between the persons in the Trinity who each play complementary roles making possible the redemptive program for God’s elect people. The covenant of the Creator is the foundation of every covenant between Creator and creature. According to Drs. David Van Drunen and R. Scott Clark, “In Reformed theology, the pactum salutis has been defined as a pretemporal, intratrinitarian agreement between the Father and Son in which the Father promises to redeem an elect people. In turn the Son volunteers to earn the salvation of his people by becoming incarnate … by acting as surety of the covenant of grace for and as mediator of the covenant of grace to the elect. In his active and passive obedience, Christ fulfills the conditions of the pactum salutis … ratifying the Father’s promise, because of which the Father rewards the Son’s obedience with the salvation of the elect. And because of this the Holy Spirit applies the Son’s work to his people through the means of grace.” (Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, p. 168)

The Immanuel Principle: Throughout Scripture, we find a recurring phrase that encapsulates the mutual-ownership and nearness characteristics of our covenant relationship with God: “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people, and I shall dwell among you” (cf. Exodus 6:7, 29:45, Ezekiel 11:20, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23, II Corinthians 6:16, Revelation 21:3). Dr. Robertson tagged this the Immanuel Principle, that in bringing us into covenant, “God is with us.” He wrote, “The heart of this consummative realization consists of a single person. As fulfiller of all the messianic promises, he achieves in himself the essence of the covenantal principle … He therefore may be seen as the Christ who consummates the covenant.” (The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 46, 272-273) The derivative of “Immanuel” is whence we derive our English word immanence, God’s attribute which we must hold in careful tension with His attribute of transcendence, in which Dr. John Frame has helpfully observed, “Immanence in theology is usually used to refer to God’s omnipresence, which is uncontroversial among Christians, but I think it is better to use the term with more covenant nuance. God is omnipresent, yes, but with personal intentions toward people, either blessing or judgment. God’s immanence is his covenant presence.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 25)

The visible church: The observable community of Christians, comprising believing and even nonbelieving members, who identify with the institutional assembly of faith.

The invisible church: Those who are truly new creatures in Christ, who are Christians not only in the nominal sense, but in the true sense of heart conversion. All true believers everywhere, spanning denominations, traditions and borders, are members united to each other and Christ by being born again in the Holy Spirit.

The normative perspective: All Scripture is the force of law, so what God has prescribed, commanded through His Word, is normative for His people. God has revealed the indicative, that is, what is true, and followed by stating the imperative, that is, what we are compelled to do in response to that revealed truth. The simplest example would go something like, “God has saved us, therefore we must obey him.” In a wider discussion of the normative, the situational and the existential perspectives of human knowledge, Dr. Frame has written, “Since God is the authority of all things, he is the ultimate criterion of truth and falsity, right and wrong (normative). If it is possible for human beings to know anything, their knowledge must meet these criteria.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 30)

The way Christians comprehend God’s Word is guided by a science called hermeneutics, or a method of interpretation. Whether a person’s hermeneutic is simple or sophisticated, inconsistent or consistent, everyone who reads the Bible does so with some kind of hermeneutics. A person’s hermeneutic can be influenced by many variables including his family, friends, peers, church leaders, seminary education, and especially by his own presuppositions. To not have a hermeneutic is to have a hermeneutic, just a very bad one. As students of God’s Word, we want our hermeneutics to, as closely as possible, capture the original meaning and spirit of the biblical text. Each of us has the right to interpret God’s Word for ourselves — but since it is first God’s Word, not ours, none of us has the right to interpret God’s Word incorrectly.

To really understand what something in the Bible means, especially the more difficult teachings, we have to carefully take into account various factors: the thrust of the chapter where it’s found, the overall message of the book, the originally intended audience, the sociohistorical context in which it was written, where it’s chronologically located in God’s progressive revelation, and what the rest of the council of Scripture has to say on the topic. By properly weighing all these — while also acknowledging that we are finite beings trying to fathom infinite truths — we can hope that our hermeneutics brings us to a faithful understanding of the Bible.

Hermeneutics is very important because in striving to be consistent in our outlook of God’s Word, how we generally approach and understand the whole of Scripture will guide how we specifically understand Scripture passages and various concepts.

A basic example of the fundamental difference in hermeneutic approaches appears in two historic confessions, The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, and the 1677/1689 London Baptist Confession. The intent of such confessions has been to help homogenize groups of Christians on various points of doctrine by formulating statements that can be corporately avowed. They are as follows:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, section 6)

“The whole Councel of God concerning all things necessary for his own Glory, Mans Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressely set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.” (The London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, section 6)

The key phrase in WCF 1.6, “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced,” has been a seminal instrument of interpretation for Reformed thinkers since the late 17th century. The Westminster Confession and the London Baptist Confession, both composed in London within 25 years of each other, resemble each other in most points. However, we find a key interpretive difference in LBC 1.6, which obviously marks an early, basic interpretive departure from Westminster on their major point of dispute, which was paedobaptism. We won’t digress in order to identify the deductions and inferences found within the London Baptist Confession, other than to simply stress how one stated hermeneutical approach clearly can result in a major deviation of doctrinal understanding from another stated approach.

In Reformed theology’s general understanding of Scripture, throughout biblical history, God has said He would work with His people and transmit His blessings in the context of covenant relationships. In both the Old and New Testaments, salvation is always through the covenant of faith.

J.I. Packer well defined it:

“Salvation is covenant salvation: justification and adoption, regeneration and sanctification are covenant mercies; election is God’s choice of future members of his covenant community, the church; baptism and the Lord’s Supper, corresponding to circumcision and Passover, are covenant ordinances; God’s law is covenant law, and keeping it is the truest expression of gratitude for covenant grace and of loyalty to our covenant God.” (Concise Theology, pp. 89-90)

We’ve pointed out the visual nature of baptism. With baptism, we’re dealing with a subject that is prominent in Christian life and practice, so our tendency is to isolate it — yet, baptism is actually but one dimension of the covenantal framework that organizes Scripture. Our view of baptism should be refracted through the basic principles of how God has dealt with His people throughout redemptive history. To thoroughly understand baptism’s covenantal character, we first must take a panoramic outlook starting early in the Bible, and observe how covenants have structured the progressive revelation that now exists for us as the whole of Scripture. This matrix is known as Covenant theology.

Dr. Ligon Duncan, the Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, has refined a useful working definition of Covenant theology:

“Covenant theology is the Gospel set in the context of God’s eternal plan of communion with his people, and its historical outworking in the covenants of works and grace (as well as in the various progressive stages of the covenant of grace). Covenant theology explains the meaning of the death of Christ in light of the fullness of the biblical teaching on the divine covenants, undergirds our understanding of the nature and use of the sacraments, and provides the fullest possible explanation of the grounds of our assurance.
To put it another way, Covenant theology is the Bible’s way of explaining and deepening our understanding of: (1) the atonement [the meaning of the death of Christ]; (2) assurance [the basis of our confidence of communion with God and enjoyment of his promises]; (3) the sacraments [signs and seals of God’s covenant promises — what they are and how they work]; and (4) the continuity of redemptive history [the unified plan of God’s salvation]. Covenant theology is also an hermeneutic, an approach to understanding the Scripture — an approach that attempts to biblically explain the unity of biblical revelation.” (What is Covenant Theology?, Third Millennium Ministries)

There are volumes that have been written expounding on Covenant theology. For our purposes, we’ll take just a cursory look at how God delivered His covenants, and the various signs and seals He has used to ground those respective covenants in space and time.

Very briefly, the six contiguous covenants we find explicitly mentioned in redemptive history (the following nomenclature is borrowed from Dr. Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants):

  1. The Covenant of Commencement: God made a covenant with the human race, and Adam was the recipient of that covenant (Hosea 6:7). Though the human race was comprised of only one person at the time the covenant was administered, Adam was designated as the federal head of his progeny who would inherit both the blessings and the obligations of this covenant. The sign of the Adamic Covenant was the Tree of Life that was in the Garden of Eden, which was a facsimile of the Lord’s temple. When Adam failed to uphold the obligations of this “covenant of works,” he (and Eve) was removed from the garden and his sin spread to all his descendants, except of course, for Jesus, the one conceived by the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Covenant of Preservation: God made a covenant with the survivors of the Great Flood, and Noah was the recipient of that covenant (Genesis 6:17-18, 9:8-17). The sign of the Noahic Covenant was a rainbow, in which the Lord promised never to destroy the world with water again, but to someday cleanse the earth of wickedness through fire.
  3. The Covenant of Promise: God made a covenant with Abraham, in which Abraham was its direct recipient (Genesis 15-17). Abraham’s legitimate descendants, the Hebrews, became the beneficiaries of the covenant promises of land, descendants and blessing. The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant was circumcision, and Abraham was the first to be circumcised. Because Abraham was the patriarch of his house, Isaac, Jacob and all the males who descended from him were to receive that same mark of circumcision. Wherever the Bible refers to the covenant with Abraham, it always refers to it in the singular.
  4. The Covenant of Law: God made a covenant with Israel after He delivered them from Egypt, and Moses was the recipient (Exodus 19-24, Numbers 25:12-13, Deuteronomy 29:10-13, Psalm 106:31). This covenant made at Horeb was distinct from the covenant made with Abraham (Deuteronomy 5:2-3), yet it was built upon the unconditional promises made to Abraham (Exodus 19:6). The sign of the Mosaic Covenant was circumcision, like that of the Abrahamic Covenant, yet with more specific requirements. The Covenant of Law, sometimes referred to as the Old Covenant or the Sinaitic Covenant, reflected the perfect righteousness of God but had many obligations that were unattainable for people to perfectly follow, which pointed to a greater covenant yet to come.
  5. The Covenant of the Kingdom: God made a covenant with the nations of Israel and Judah, and King David was its recipient (II Samuel 7, I Kings 2:4, II Chronicles 13:5, Jeremiah 35:18-19). God promised His people through Solomon, an everlasting throne and kingdom. There is no specific covenant sign in the Davidic Covenant, other than the conceptual image of the throne.
  6. The Covenant of Consummation: God made a covenant with His elect people, and Jesus Christ was its recipient (Hebrews 8-9). God promised everlasting life and an eternal inheritance for all who have faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. All the previous covenant administrations find their fulfillment in Christ: Jesus holds up the covenant of works where Adam had failed. Just like Adam passed on the consequences of disobedience to us, His descendants, Christ, the second Adam, wins salvation for us, His adopted people, through His perfect, active obedience. All those who take refuge in Christ find safety and deliverance just like those who were in Noah’s ark, thus Christ fulfills the Covenant of Preservation. Jesus is the object of the Covenant of Promise. Jesus fulfills the Mosaic Covenant by having actively obeyed God’s law perfectly in every part. Christ the Messiah fulfills the Covenant of the Kingdom as our crowned King from the line of David. Serving as our prophet, priest and king, Jesus Christ is the apex to which all the covenants and promises increase — hence the consummation of the eternal covenant. The sign of the New Covenant, of course, is baptism.

Dr. Robertson wrote,

“The covenant structure of Scripture manifests a marvelous unity. God, in binding a people to himself, never changes. For this reason, the covenants of God relate organically to one another. From Adam to Christ, a unity of covenantal administration characterizes the history of God’s dealing with his people.” (The Christ of the Covenants, p. 45)

Dr. Mark Jones wrote,

“The big picture of the covenant of grace, which structures the history of redemption, always maintains the focus on God’s desire to relate to His people, and ultimately to dwell among them and in them. He does this preeminently by His Spirit through His Son, Jesus Christ.” (“What is a Covenant?”, Tabletalk, May 2014, Vol. 38, No. 5, p. 9)

Time and space fail us to be able to flesh out every one of these covenants and their interconnection. We’ll revisit the Covenant of Consummation later in a discussion of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

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Covenant theology, sacramentology, systematic theology