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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Particular Baptists and Calvinistic Methodists on the Covenant of Grace

John Eilas (1744-1841)
Hanserd Knollys (1599-1691)














Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Savoy Declaration (1658) is devoted to 'God's Covenant with Man' (see this tabular comparison). The two confessions are not identical at this point. The wording  is different here and there. Savoy omits quite a bit of Westminster's paragraph 5 and the whole of paragraph 6. But they ave quite a lot in common. Both both the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were Paedobaptists, holding that the children of believers should be baptised. An essential element of Paedobaptist theology is that just as Abraham's offspring were to be circumcised, so the children of believers should not be denied the new covenant sign of baptism. 

That is why Westminster and Savoy say that the covenant of grace was 'differently administered' during the era of the law to what is now the case under the gospel (VII:5). In other words, the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace, as is the new covenant. Under all the various administrations the children of covenant members were to receive the sign of the covenant and either be circumcised (under the law) or baptised (under the gospel).  

The trouble with that is under the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, simply being a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh did not make a person a true believer in the coming Messiah. Paul says as much in Romans 9:6-13. How, then could the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants be administrations of the covenant of grace, when, according to both Westminster and Savoy, the covenant of grace was between God and the elect, who would most certainly be saved?
the Covenant of Grace; wherein he freely offereth 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. (VII:3).

The framers of the Second London Baptist Confession (1689) denied that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace. Rather, they were 'steps' under which the covenant promise of salvation was revealed until it was fully made known under the new covenant.

This covenant [of grace] 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 full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament (VII:3). 

Accordingly, baptism is only for those who were ordained unto life and have been savingly engrafted into Christ, the evidence of which is their profession of repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Chapter XXIX 2LBCF). 

Now, eyebrows might be raised at the idea of 'Calvinistic Methodism', thinking that Methodists were Arminians like John Wesley. But George Whitefield was both a Calvinist and a Methodist. So too were his Welsh counterparts, Daniel Rowland and William Williams. Second generation Welsh Calvinistic Methodists left the Church of England and formed their own church grouping. Their leaders such as John Elias and Thomas Charles were very much Calvinist in doctrine and Methodist in spiritual vibrancy. Their confession of faith reflects that. 

What I want to highlight here is how the Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists (1823) resembles the Second London Baptist Confession more than it does Westminster or Savoy in its treatment of covenant theology. Chapter 13 is entitled, 'Of the Eternal Covenant of Grace'. The confession says that the promises of the covenant of grace are given to 'Christ and his seed' and under this covenant this 'seed' will receive eternal life. That could not be said of all Abraham's natural descendants and regretfully, neither is it true of all children of new covenant believers. The final paragraph of Chapter 13 says,

God in his own time reveals this covenant through the gospel to all his people, and, by bringing them to approve and embrace it, brings them into the bond of the covenant, and into actual possession in their own persons of its grace, gifts, and privileges. The covenant of grace was revealed by degrees, and under various dispensations; but the gospel dispensation is the last and most glorious. This covenant is free, sure, holy, advantageous, and eternal.

Note the way in which the penultimate sentence seems to echo the emphasis of the Second London Baptist Confession. Contrary to Westminster and Savoy, the covenant of grace is not said to be 'differently administered' over time, but 'revealed by degrees, and under various dispensations: but the gospel dispensation is the last and most glorious'. That is more or less the equivalent of the 2LBC's  'revealed... by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament'. Quite how on this basis the Calvinistic Methodist fathers still went on to affirm infant baptism in Chapter 37 of the confession, I am at a loss to know. 

My point is that few would doubt that the early Welsh Calvinistic Methodist churches were part of the Reformed family. Their confession placed them in the mainstream of Presbyterian and Reformed thought. Particular Baptist teaching on the covenant of grace sprang up from within the Reformed churches, especially the Independents in the seventeenth century. But they saw with greater clarity that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants could not simply be identified with the covenant of grace. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) in which the covenant of grace was progressively disclosed. 

All agree that the covenant of grace is with God and his elect people in Christ and made effective by the Spirit. The genius of the Particular Baptists was to follow the biblical logic of that position to say that  baptism should therefore only be administered to believers on profession of faith, who are then admitted to the membership of a local church. Doctrinally speaking, we are indeed Reformed Baptists. But that in itself is not sufficient, we also need something of the life and fire of the old Calvinistic Methodists. 

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