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Continuity or Union with Christ

Continuity or Union with Christ

In a continuing effort to educate myself, I am reading Progressive Covenantalism edited by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker. The book has provided some excellent hermeneutical insights and so I have sought to balance the book by reading The Binding of God by Peter Lillback.


Israel through Christ

The second chapter in Progressive Covenatalism looks at the Israel-Christ-Church relationship. Brent Parker does a wonderful job showing how Jesus Christ is the "True Israel" and the recipient (or fulfillment) of all Old Testament promises. In doing so, Parker is pulling the rug out from under Dispensational thinking which requires two "peoples" of God with differing purposes and promises.

Though much of what Parker presents has been presented in Covenant Theology, his intent is to stress that the Church cannot be a one-to-one replacement/fulfillment of Israel,

"Thus, the church does not replace or absorb Old Testament Israel; rather Israel was a type of Jesus and, derivatively, of a new and regenerate covenant community." (68)

Parker wants to stress the church's natural discontinuity with the nation of Israel. Only through "Union with Christ" is one made partaker of the new covenant community. For Parker and progressive coventalism, the visible church (as covenant theology sees it) does not share continuity with Israel or its promises. Fitting for a baptistic theology, the signs, promises, and seals of Israel do not belong to external church membership (ala covenant theology). One must be united with Christ by regeneration. 

Westminister on Signs

Contra this position from Parker, the Westminster Confession refers to one covenant of grace extending throughout the two testaments with shared — though different — signs and promises. This promotes more continuity being the two entities — Israel and the church. For covenant theologians, the signs and promises of the Old Testament to Israel have a renewed administration in the New Testament,

"Commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers 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." (WCF, VII.III)
"This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel" (WCF, VII.V)
"There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations." (WCF, VII.VII)

However, the Westminster Confession does not here clearly delineate with whom the "covenant of grace" is made. "The first covenant made with man" (WCF, VII.II), but what of the second? The Longer and Shorter Catechism seem to delineate that only the elect are truly given and participate in the covenant of grace,

"The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." (WLC, Q.31)
"God, having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer." (WSC, Q.20)

This position possibly undergirds the distinction in the WCF on baptism,

"Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace" (WCF, XXVIII.I)

There seems to be a natural distinction in the Westminster Standards between membership in the visible church and membership in the covenant of grace. This position seems to saddle itself quite nicely with Parker's position that only the regenerate (united with Christ by faith) are the members of the new covenant administration of the covenant of grace. Does it not then seem as if the Westminster position is that baptism — the covenant sign — is administered to children who are not truly covenant members? Yet, it is clear across the Reformed Confessions that baptism administers the promises of the new covenant to all who receive it,

"We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children." (Belgic Confession, Article 34)
"Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God...We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that newborn infants of the faithful are to be baptized. For according to evangelical teaching, of such is the Kingdom of God, and they are in the covenant of God. Why, then, should the sign of God's covenant not be given to them?" (Second Helvetic, XX)
"Infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people, and they, no less than adults, are promised deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who produces faith. Therefore, by baptism, the sign of the covenant, they too should be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers." (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.74)
"The same covenant of grace was and still is to be administered in the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; in which grace and salvation are held forth in more fulness, evidence, and efficacy, to all nations." (WLC, Q.35)
"Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise" (WLC, Q.166)

Peter Lillback encapsulates the covenantal theology of Zwingli against the anabaptists & progressive covenantal view in much the same way,

"On the other hand, Zwingli believed that infant baptism was a sign of the covenant which brought a promise of salvation to the children. The very covenant sign for Zwingli was critical because it was an attestation of the decree of election for the parents and their children. One might later prove that he was not truly one of Christ's by not manifesting the faith that was the fruit of election. But to assume that of any infant, or even to remain in an uncertain state as taught by Cellarius, was to deny the law of God which undergirded the covenant sign." (The Binding God, pg. 108)

What is this unique "covenant of promise" in the Westminster Larger Catechism? And why is it shorthanded in the other confessions (and Zwingli) to merely "God's covenant" administered in both the Old and New Testament?

Infant baptism seems to me to be a clearly enumerated biblical principal. In the crosshairs of Parker's criticism in Progressive Covenantalism, it is time I revisit why the Westminster Standards seem unclear about which covenant is made with the visible church.

Luther and Progressive Covenantalism

Luther and Progressive Covenantalism

Hello World! I'm Reading You Up!

Hello World! I'm Reading You Up!