Three Ways of Relating to the One Covenant of Grace

Sometime back the question was raised:

We know that there are at least two categories of people within Scripture, the elect, and the non-elect. However, it might be apparent that there is a third class of people, those who have taken the physical sign of the covenant but are not elect. We know that not all of the Jews were literally God’s people, but there were those who took the sign of the covenant although they weren’t elect. Also, we know that not all Christians are saved, even though they profess faith in Christ and have taken on the sign of the new covenant, that of Baptism. Could we then say there is a third category of human beings, those who have placed themselves as covenanted with God, but whom God has not Himself covenanted with?

To these we could add the class of those who profess make a credible profession of faith but who fall away.

These are good and important questions, the answers to which greatly affect the way we understand the whole of Scripture. They touch on the nature of the covenant of grace, the continuity of the covenant of grace, its administration throughout redemptive history, and the nature of the new covenant. They also relate to the question of apostasy in the new covenant.

Rather than thinking of three or four classes of people it might be clearer and more helpful to think of different ways of relating to the one covenant of grace.

  1. Some are in the visible covenant community and believe. They have both in external relation (i.e., they have received the sign and seal of initiation, have made a profession of faith, and participate in the life of the covenant community) and an internal relation (i.e., by God’s free favor they have new life and believe and are actually united to Christ) to the covenant of grace.
  2. Some are in covenant of grace outwardly but do not believe (and let us suppose that they will never believe). These are hypocrites and reprobate but they do participate in the administration o the covenant of grace. They are not actually united to Christ (contra the self-described Federal Vision theology) but they, like Esau Ishmael, have received the signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They do “taste of the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6) but since those signs/seals are not mixed with faith (because they are not elect; Rom 9) the signs/seals ultimate testify to their destruction (though we cannot necessarily know that at the time). Hypocrites in the administration of the covenant of grace may well make a credible profession of faith, i.e., they may confess the orthodox faith and live outwardly in such a way as to give no evidence of unbelief or ground for church discipline.
  3. Then there is a class of folk who have no relation to the covenant of grace at all. They are outside its administration and its substance altogether. These, like those who are involved in the administration but who have not yet believed, are proper objects of evangelism— though we are all proper objects of evangelism in some sense. As White Horse Inn fellows rightly remind us, the gospel is for Christians too.

By recognizing that non-elect folk are actually, really, involved in the administration of the covenant of grace we avoid the (Baptist) error of excluding all but the elect from the covenant of grace altogether and we avoid the (FV) error of conflating the administration of the covenant with its substance, i.e. of confusing administration and decree (thus setting up their temporary, conditional union, election, justification, adoption etc). To put it plainly: the administration of the covenant of grace works for God’s eternal decree. The administration of the covenant of grace does not change or leverage God’s decree but God nevertheless achieves his eternal purposes through the temporal administration of the covenant of grace through the use of the keys of the kingdom: the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.

If we confuse the substance of the covenant with its administration we get one of two errors, either the Baptist view that the new covenant is so eschatological (identified with the decree) that there can be no administration and no hypocrites in it or the FV error that says that every person who receives the administration is, by that fact, necessarily a recipient of the substance of the covenant of grace, if only temporarily.

In the Baptist view of the new covenant, the reality of the administration of the covenant is virtually wiped out. In the FV view, the administration of the covenant of grace controls or becomes the eternal decree. Both problems are avoided if we distinguish, as Scripture does, between the reality of the covenant of grace and its administration and if we affirm both at the same time in their proper place.

The answer to both problems is in Paul’s distinction in Romans 2:28 between those who were Jews only outwardly and those who were Jews outwardly and inwardly. This is how Paul explains the phenomena of Esau and Ishmael. They both received the administration of the covenant of grace but neither received its substance by grace alone, through faith alone. We continue to see Esaus and Ishmaels, i.e., those who participate in the administration but who never receive the reality there too.

Against the FV and the Arminians we should say that there are no examples in Scripture of those who actually possessed the benefits, i.e., the reality of the covenant of grace but who nevertheless fall away. Apostasy is a reality but there is no such thing in Scripture of the elect apostatizing. There are examples, however, of those who make a credible profession of faith apostatizing. The key is not to confuse a credible profession of faith with true faith or participation in the substance of the covenant of grace.

The biblical doctrine of the covenant of grace includes both the reality of the covenant of grace and the administration of the covenant of grace. Though we must distinguish between them we may never set them against each other.

No one ordinarily participates in the substance without participating in the administration but participation in the administration does not guarantee participation in the substance. Only election (and consequently, regeneration, faith, and union with Christ) determines whether one who participates in the outward administration (via baptism) of the covenant of grace also participates in the inward substance of the covenant of grace.

Since God promised to Adam that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:14–16), since God made (Gen 6) a gracious covenant with Noah, since God entered into a covenant of grace with Abraham and his children (Gen 12, 15, 17), since and since God made a covenant with David (Ps 89:3; Jer 33:21) there has only and ever been one covenant of grace. There has been, however, a variety of administrations. The covenant of grace has been administered under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses (Gal 3), David, and under the New Covenant (2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10).

In the history of the covenant of grace there has always been three ways of relating to it: outwardly, inwardly, and not at all but everyone has some relation to the covenant of grace. Simply participating in its administration guarantees nothing. The history of salvation is replete with examples of those who were in the (administration) of the covenant of grace but who were not of the covenant of grace or who “went out” from the covenant community because they were not “of” the covenant community inwardly (1 John 2:19).

This is how we should understand the problem of apostasy in Hebrews chapters 6 and 10. The writer to the Hebrews was speaking of those who participated (“tasted of goodness of the Word of God and of the powers of the age to come” Heb 6:5) in the administration of the covenant of grace and nevertheless “profaned the blood of the covenant” (Heb 10:29) by turning away from Christ and his promises in order to go back to the Mosaic ceremonies, the types and shadows (Heb 10:1) that were intended to illustrate the reality: Christ.

The administration of the covenant of grace is a reality, i.e., people really do participate, but it is not the ultimate reality. In view of the exalted language of Hebrews 6:5 (“tasted…of the powers”) we can hardly say otherwise. We should say, however, that to taste is apparently not to inwardly digest.

Those who apostatize from the covenant community actually do participate in the covenant of grace but they do so only outwardly. We need to overcome the bias that leads us to think that the outward participation is not a really any sort of participation. The Scriptures simply do not speak that way nor do they encourage us to think or speak thus.

At the same time we need to understand that participating in the administration of the covenant of grace is not the same thing as receiving its substance, i.e., Christ and unconditional acceptance with God (and union with Christ and adoption as sons etc) because those things are given only to believers and only those to whom God has freely, unconditionally given the gift of faith (Eph 2) have it and receive all that it brings.

Finally, the administration of the covenant of grace involves not a little mystery. We must understand that the same person may have more than one relation to the covenant of grace in his lifetime. A person may be outwardly initiated into the covenant of grace but not receive its benefits by grace alone, through faith alone for some time after. When and if that happens is up to the sovereign Holy Spirit (John 3). Some who are initiated outwardly may already possess its benefits by grace alone, through faith alone. Some who are initiated may make a credible profession of faith but may not actually have taken possession of the benefits of Christ by faith (e.g., Judas). Others may participate in the life of the covenant community, make a credible profession of faith, deny that profession, and return again in repentance and faith. Consider the Apostle Peter who denied our Lord more than once and yet who doubts that he truly believed?

There is only one covenant of grace but there is more than one way of relating to it. To sort out this question we must not forget the essential distinction between “inward” and “outward” and its corollary “substance” and “administration.” When we confuse those things all sorts of mistakes ensue. When we distinguish them, without separating them, we are prepared to understand the full range of the biblical teaching about the covenant of grace, believers, and those who apostasize.

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For more on these topics:

Baptism and the Benefits of Christ

Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace.

On the New Covenant

Resources on Covenant Theology

Resources on the Federal Vision

A Contemporary Defense of Infant Baptism

The Church: The Christ-Confessing Covenant Community

How Did We Come To Faith?