So last week, I made the mistake of getting James White’s attention. You have likely seen the man debate, and so you know his skills. The best thing to do is to make your points when he’s not looking so you don’t end up having him draw that dividing line of his and take you to task. It also works to have someone kneecap him while you state a few claims. The pain, you see, distracts him. But, alas, I spoke when he was both awake, in earshot, not cringing in pain, and now look at the trouble I’m in.
As many of you know, James is a friend. He asked a few questions when he was addressing my recent article on the Dividing Line. So, here is my attempt to answer those questions. Here’s how we shall carve this post up: First, a few introductory matters. Second, James’ central objection (that my position destroys the apologetic argument in Hebrews) is restated and addressed. Third, James’ central objection is enlarged and addressed. Finally, a scattershot of responses to questions or thoughts that arose here and there on James’ Dividing Line.
Let me reiterate what James said online. He essentially noted that much of the Reformed world is quite grumpy and increasingly so, and he and I (and other folks here in Moscow) can disagree and still be good friends. This is all quite on the money, and so three cheers from me.
The nub of the issue is this: The Credobaptist position says that the new covenant is so unlike the old and so much better that each and every member of the new covenant is actively regenerate, unlike the old when children were included. The Paedobaptist position says that the new covenant is unlike the old and better by far, but such that the inclusion of children in the covenant remains, old and new.
Covenant theology is notoriously complex and fascinating, so we should all have a good time studying and not be hasty when dealing with brothers working things out. On this point, there is some tightly reasoned covenant theology coming.
This is necessary given the questions that naturally arise from Scripture. I am stating some key questions from the Credobaptists to the Paedobaptists in this post, and seeking to answer them. But there are tough questions that go the other way as well. For example, when it comes to the olive tree in Romans 11 or the vine in John 15, the Calvinistic Credobaptists and Paedobaptists all agree that elect branches cannot be removed. But the non-elect branches . . . what are they being removed from? With that, on to the matter at hand.
James’ Central Objection: Destroys Apologetic Argument
James’ central objection to my claim that the Christian’s children are members of the new covenant is that holding such destroys Paul’s apologetic argument in Hebrews. (I will simply assume Pauline authorship here). James and I agree entirely on the apologetic argument being made. It is this: “Don’t go back to the old covenant because there is nothing to go back to.” Imagine we are back with Paul when Hebrews was being written. It is before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. And Jim-Bob the Christian is wanting to go back to the old covenant, Judaizer style. He is being tempted to think that if he is going to really be saved, then he must go back to the old covenant with its animal sacrifices, circumcision, temple worship, etc. We know he’s in a bad way, you and I, so we tell him to knock it off. Why? Well, I agree entirely with James that the apologetic argument in Hebrews is that Jim-Bob can’t go back to the old covenant because there is nothing to go back to.
In short, nothing I’ve proposed destroys the apologetic argument of Hebrews because I, with James and Paul, could have said loud and clear to Jim-Bob, “You can’t go back to the old covenant because there is nothing to go back to.”
There are three alternatives for not going back:
1. Don’t go back to the old covenant because it never saved in the first place and it is vanishing.
2. Don’t go back to the old covenant because the new covenant saves each and every one of its members, whereas the old only saved a few of its members, and the old is vanishing.
3. Don’t go back to the old covenant, for though it saved some of its members, it indeed is vanishing, and the new covenant is far better.
If I understand him rightly, James is number 2. I am number 3. And the 1689 federalists are number 1.
But, I would simply point out that the central apologetic argument is intact: There’s no going back to the old covenant because there is nothing to go back to. As Paul writes, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).
James’ Objection Enlarged: Anything Coherent Left for Hebrews 10:10?
Now, my guess is that James is going to say, “Hold it right there my friend, there is more to the apologetic argument than the central truth that the old covenant is vanishing.” I would happily agree with him and add, “But you must admit that we both still have that central apologetic argument intact, yes?” And I trust Dr. White would smile and say, “Why Jared, I believe you are right on that. Well done. I mean, really, I am impressed.” Then we would go off and enjoy lunch at one of the lovely establishments here in Moscow, and I would avoid having to get into the weeds in this next section. But, alas, he brought up this Hebrews 10:10, so buckle up and say a prayer.
Let me strong man James’ point here. It is thusly: Hebrews 10:10 says, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
First, (James would say) this speaks of a better sacrifice, the body of Jesus Christ, instead of the blood of bulls and goats. The new covenant involves the sacrifice of Christ Himself. You mean to tell me that the covenant which pertains to such a better sacrifice will not save all of its members, Bucko? (James wouldn’t really say Bucko. But I would if I were him, and I’m the one doing the strong manning, so take that). [better sacrifice]
Second, who in tarnation is the “we”? Do you mean to tell me that the “we” is a covenant people, only some of whom will go to heaven? Why does the text not say, “And by that will some of us have been sanctified and others of us not . . . “? [better people]
Third, zooming out a bit from this text, the context clearly speaks to better promises: “he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). But, you sprinklers of infants leave the new covenant promises no better than the old, for the promises of both, according to you, don’t secure each and every member. [better promises]
Fourth, that same Hebrews 8:6 says that Christ has “obtained a more excellent mediatorial ministry.” But, as with His sacrifice, shall this mediator, who is Christ Himself, not effectively mediate each and every one of His new covenant people unto salvation? If not, what makes His more excellent mediatorial ministry more excellent? [better mediatorial ministry]
Fifth, that same Hebrews 8:6 says that the new covenant Christ mediates is better. But, it does not seem that much better to me if you can slip out of this new covenant bond just like you could the old. [better covenant]
By way of summary, the apologetic argument (according to James as I understand him) is not merely that you should not go back to the old covenant, for there is nothing there to go back to. But it is also that you should not go back to the old covenant because the new covenant sacrifice is better, sanctifying each and every member (1), the new covenant people are better, each and every one of them being actively regenerate (2), the new covenant promises are better, ensuring the active regeneration of each and every member (3), the new covenant mediatorial ministry is better, ensuring that Christ mediates such that each and every new covenant member goes to heaven (4), and the new covenant itself is better, it being designed as a bond that cannot be unbonded by a single new covenant member (5).
The question then is: “If you don’t affirm the five points above, how can you say anything coherent about the better sacrifice, people, promises, mediatorial ministry, and the new covenant itself?
Thus far, the force of James’ argument. I told you covenant theology is complex. Now for a reply:
In short, we can indeed detail a coherent take on the better sacrifice, people, promises, mediatorial ministry, and the new covenant itself without having to claim the new covenant membership is made up of only the actively regenerate. “I’d like to see you try,” say the Credo brethren. OK, I will do my best, but do pray for me.
Before answering each point in turn, we must start with a definition of the covenant of grace itself. To keep it simple, let us call the covenant of grace God’s solemn oath of salvation in and by Jesus Christ, conditioned upon obedient faith, that bonds His people to one another and Himself. Note, both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith speak of this covenant of grace, so I think we’re on safe and common ground thus far. Anyone who has studied covenant theology a bit knows that I could add sacraments, blessings and curses, and a host of other dimensions to this covenant. I have simply stated a definition that is manageable and likely agreeable to most.
I should add that I take the old covenant and new covenant simply as different administrations of this one covenant of grace, something that 1689 federalism denies. And I’m not entirely sure where James is on this. But, I believe the substance of the covenant of grace I defined above is in both the old and new covenants, each of them having particularities that don’t do away with the substance.
Now for the points in turn, and I am going to take them in reverse order:
First, the new covenant is better than the old covenant, not because a single new covenant member cannot go out from the new covenant, but because the new covenant maintains a greater measure of the Spirit, greater liberty, greater clarity, and the cause and completion of our salvation arrives in the person of Christ. It is also better in that it will never vanish like the old, and this is the central point in the apologetic argument. More could be said. But this is pretty standard Reformed Paedobaptist talk on what makes the new covenant better. For example, Witsius says that people mistakenly assume that the old covenant did not provide salvation, circumcision of the heart, the law written on the heart, justification, adoption, and peace of conscience (The Economy of the Covenants, volume 2, chap. 12). Indeed, the old covenant (the old administration of the covenant of grace that is) provided all of those things. That old covenant did not, however, supply the greater potency of the Spirit, greater liberty, Christ in the flesh, and the completion of our salvation.
Second, Hebrews says that Christ has obtained a more excellent mediatorial ministry, and that indeed is the case. But it need not follow that each and every member in the new covenant that He mediates be actively regenerate. Paul makes plain wherein lies the superiority of his ministry, for he said of the Old Testament priests, “And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood” (Hebrews 7:23-24). That indeed signals a better mediatorial ministry. It is also in keeping with the central apologetic argument in Hebrews: “Don’t go back to the old covenant because there is nothing to go back to, and don’t go back to the old covenant priesthood because there is no old priesthood to go back to. But in Christ we have an unchangeable and better priesthood.” I can imagine a guy saying, “But, seriously, are you saying that Christ is the better mediator of the new covenant and He doesn’t mediate eternal life effectively to every member of that new covenant?” Well, yes, I am saying that. And one reason this point is hard to get across is that we think of Christ as merely a personal mediator, a point which I do not deny to the elect. But, the text says He is the “mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6). In other words, it is no offense to Christ’s more excellent mediatorial ministry that some in the new covenant will not endure until the end for Christ mediates the new covenant according to its terms and conditions, not contrary its terms and conditions. And as seen above in the definition of the covenant of grace, that condition is obedient faith.
Now, here arises a natural question, “But, isn’t the condition of faith a gift from God given in the new covenant?” Indeed. But that giving of faith, let’s call it God’s effectual call, is not identical to the covenant itself. Herein lies all the rub, honestly. If you were to look up “the new covenant” in the Credobaptist dictionary, it would be essentially the effectual call of God to an individual sinner that always gives new birth and eternal life to that individual. (They would build out that definition, of course, but this personal effectual call would be right at the heart of the very definition of the new covenant itself). Whereas, the Paedobaptist, generally speaking, who holds to this very same effectual call that the Credobaptist does, simply does not equate that effectual call with the new covenant itself. Rather, the new covenant is the instrument of God’s effectual call, and He is not skimpy with this effectual call in and through the new covenant. He works regeneration far and wide. Even so, effectual calling is not identical but intimately related to the new covenant. For further reading on this, see John Ball, the well-respected covenant theologian. He makes this important distinction in his “Treatise of the Covenant of Grace” pages 324ff.
I might add here that this seems to me to line up with both the 1689 Baptist Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith. They are identical in this regard. They both say that God made 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 [eternal] life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” Notice that according to the language of the confession, faith is a required condition in the covenant of grace, and it is implied that not all but “those that are ordained unto eternal life” will be made willing and able to believe by God’s effectual call.
Summarizing this second point, Christ indeed has a better mediatorial ministry in the new covenant, but the superiority of His mediatorial ministry centers on Him being an unchangeable (Hebrews 7:24), undying priest who ministers from the heavenly tabernacle, not a mere earthly one (Hebrews 8:1-4). Thus His superior ministry simply does not require that each and every new covenant member be actively regenerate.
Third, the new covenant indeed is most certainly enacted on better promises, but it does not follow that one of those new promises is that each and every member of the new covenant is actively regenerate. Those new promises I have detailed in my “first” reply above. I would add that, while there are actually promises of the new covenant that are far better than the old (potency of the Spirit, the efficacy of Christ, the measure of faith in the covenant community, etc.), the key promise in view is a promise about the new covenant itself. Recall, as I noted in my first post, that the covenant is much more of a “league” or an “administration” (like a presidential administration) than most think. So a better promise pertaining to the new league or administration itself is that the new league will never fade away like the old one did. So we say to Jim-Bob, “The new covenant has a better promise concerning it, namely that it will never vanish. Are you really going to go back to the old covenant, which is vanishing? The old covenant doesn’t have that better promise.”
Fourth, the new covenant people, indeed, are better in a sense, but it is not because each and every member of the new covenant is actively regenerate. There are still those who go out from us for they are not of us (1 John 2:19), and those who trod under foot the Son of God after having received the knowledge of the truth, and count the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing and outrage the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29). But, this new covenant people do have a greater measure of faith for the Spirit has been poured out on them at Pentecost in a more potent way than He was before. While we still have plenty of growing to do, the people of God have gone from being but a child to a grown man (Galatians 4:1-7).
I did raise a very particular question when strong manning this point above, namely, “Who in tarnation is the “we” in Hebrews 10:10?” In other words, does Jesus sanctify this whole new covenant people, even the ones who the Paedobaptists claim are not among those who will end up in heaven? The answer is yes, Christ does sanctify them, and, of course, the sense of this sanctification is very important. Most people only think of sanctification as a logical step in the ordo salutis that follows regeneration and justification, which, once possessed, can never be lost. If this is all one understands by “sanctification,” then he is going to think my claim quite inconceivable. But there are other kinds of sanctification. Most admit this given Paul’s testimony that the children of a believing parent are “holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). That “holiness” is the kind of holiness in view in our Hebrews text. I stand with John Owen on this point. He explains that this “sanctification” in Hebrews 10:10 is simply not the “sanctification” one learns in an ordo salutis soteriology lecture in the second year of seminary.
Owen writes of this verse, “The principal notion of sanctification in the New Testament, is the effecting of real, internal holiness in the persons of them that do believe, by the change of their hearts and lives. But the word is not here so to be restrained, nor is it used in that sense by our apostle in this epistle, or very rarely.” What this sanctification entails requires an analysis of our forthcoming and fifth point. For now, let’s say that this sanctification refers to a setting apart of the whole new covenant people of God unto a holiness that they did not have under the first administration. This new and better holiness involves the potency of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, a nearness to God through the Godman crucified and risen that was unknown to the old covenant people, and a complete removal of sin (even from the account of Christ) by His death. With that, we turn to the fifth point.
Fifth, Christ’s sacrifice of Himself indeed is far better than the old covenant sacrifices of bulls and goats. But it does not follow that the new covenant, to which the blood of Christ pertains, consists of only regenerate members. Again, if you merely think of Christ dying for you as an individual, then my point will be incomprehensible. He manifestly did die for individuals. That bears repeating: Christ died for individuals. But he also died for a bride, as the good old hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” says—”with His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.” In other words, His blood was the “blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26:28). That blood operates according to the terms and conditions of the covenant. If members of the covenant do not walk by faith, then they will not receive the benefits purchased by Christ’s blood.
So, “How is Christ’s blood better than bull’s blood,” you ask? Bull’s blood could not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). Indeed, bull’s blood was a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:3). But, this does not mean that bull’s blood was a reminder to the Old Testament saints of sin that was still in their account. By faith, they received the virtue and efficacy of Christ’s redemption back then, their sins being taken from their account and placed on Christ’s account. So there those sins were, sitting in Christ’s account. Then, when Christ came, His blood actually paid for those sins such that now they are not even in Christ’s account. Thus, this sacrifice of Christ is once for all. As James mentions, this is not once and for all people; it is once and for all time. In the new covenant, these sins have been blotted out entirely by Christ’s blood such that God says, “And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:17-18).
God remembers our sins no more because there are no more sins in any account to remember. Bull blood couldn’t do that, for the law only had a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image of them. So the sacrifices could not make the old covenant people perfect (Hebrews 10:1). Thus, the Old Testament saints still had remembrance of sins (Hebrews 9:14; 10:2-3). But, this was temporary, for Christ has died, canceling sin completely, making us perfect, and doing away with sin such that there is no more remembrance of them.
Thus the true logic: Don’t go back to bull sacrifices, for while they served as a means to communicate the virtue and efficacy of Christ’s redemption to Israel (WCF 8.6; 2LBC 8.6), they certainly did not cancel sin entirely. Only Christ’s sacrifice can take away sin. And if you leave Christ’s sacrifice, Jim-Bob, to go back to bull and goat blood, there won’t be any sacrifice left for sin (Hebrews 10:26). The old sacrifices are vanishing, and the new once-for-all all sacrifice of Christ’s body is all that remains.
In summary, the claim that the Christian’s children are in the new covenant indeed involves the further claim that not each and every member of the new covenant is actively regenerate. But it does not follow that this claim destroys the apologetic argument of Hebrews. You could build quite a case for telling Jim-Bob not to go back to the old covenant, indeed an argument in keeping with just what Paul is saying in the text.
James asks, “Who does Christ intercede for in the new covenant?” Answer: All new covenant members, and as clarified above, He does so according to the conditions of the covenant, not contrary to those conditions. In other words, He intercedes for all the fish in the net of His kingdom (Matthew 13:47-50). At the same time, He intercedes for the good fish in the net in a way He does not intercede for the bad fish in the net.
He also asks, “What does Christ mediate in the new covenant?” Answer: He mediates the covenant. The Father’s solemn oath of life to man on earth is an oath “in and by Jesus Christ” and conditioned upon obedient faith. I should add this “obedient faith” condition is not legalism, much less FV redux. See John Ball, the Westminster trusted and beloved covenant theologian on covenant conditions. He puts obedience right there as a condition of the covenant.
James states, “This covenant (the new covenant) brings about regeneration, and not in the minority.” Response: I agree, as noted above.
James indicates that the new covenant actually establishes a relationship between God and the covenant members. Reply: I agree, a covenantal relationship for all and a living, internal, personal relationship for the elect.
James says, “The new covenant is salvific.” Reply: I agree, and so was the old. Clarifications on the nature of that salvation must be made from there, and many of them are made above.
James acknowledges the Paedobaptist argument regarding the eschatological nature of Jeremiah’s prophecy. This eschatological argument claims that the “regenerate church” the Credobaptists are after will indeed come about in the end. But James says that this eschatological argument means the new covenant was not fully established. Reply: I disagree with James that it follows that the New Covenant would then not be fully established. I agree with the Paedobaptist eschatological argument and would say the new covenant is fully established but not fully consummated.
James emphasizes the individual at points. And I agree with the emphasis, but want to include the corporate along with the individual. See O. Palmer Robertson’s Christ of the Covenants on both the individual and corporate dimensions of the new covenant.
The Highest of High Fives to My Friend James White
In conclusion, much thanks to James. The topic of covenant is a whole bunch of fun. Much love to all, whether you’re Credo or Paedo. I will leave you with a word of wisdom from Pastor Doug’s benediction just this last Sunday at Christ Church. He said that covenant theology is like a lovely fireplace, the intricacies and details can be quite striking. But, whatever your fireplace, the essential thing is that you have a fire in it. And the fire is Christ. Here’s to having all of our covenantal conversations around the fire.