Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Covenant with Abraham.

A fresco said to be of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3.2) Through them Christ came, who is God over all, blessed for ever. We look now at the covenant with Abraham. According to Paul’s allegory (Gal. 4. 21-31) his fathering of a child (Ishmael) through Hagar, because of his impatience at the ‘delay’ in the fulfilment of God’s promise to him through Sarah, was ‘of the flesh’, because it flouted the covenantal conditions. Abraham’s fathering a child by Sarah at long last, Isaac, the covenant child, was according to the promise. Hence the ‘law’, which came to be central to the pursuit of deliverance in a merely fleshly way, follows in time the covenant of promise. The idea is that the law was wrested from its typical and schoolmasterish role to being made a scheme of works righteousness. 


Here I suggest that circumcision has to do with that strand of the promise to Abraham that pertains to the nation-state of Israel, covered by 'the land' of the Abrahamic covenant, temporary, and which once it became perverted into a scheme of ‘works righteousness’, was futile and doomed. Paul states in Galatians 5 that accepting circumcision as a necessity commits you to keeping the whole law as a means of salvation. ‘I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision [as obligatory for the Christian, and not as typifying the putting off of the flesh] that he is obligated to keep the whole law’. (5.2) Rather, what is required is what in his free grace the Lord gives, the circumcision of the heart. (Rom.1.29) The temporal order of things is important. Circumcision was instituted after the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, the law came after the promise, Moses came after Abraham.

In support of this, we note that In Colossians Paul characterises the gospel as a reception of circumcision as understood in the New Testament. ‘In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ….And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him.’ (2.11f.) So regeneration and incorporation into Christ, epitomised by dying and rising with Christ, is described as a state of fleshly uncircumcision transformed by a circumcising made without hands.

In Romans, Paul teaches that in the case of Abraham himself, he was circumcised after he had received faith that was counted for him as righteousness. Circumcision was a seal of he righteousness he had received. So that order shows, Paul says, that Abraham was the father both of those who not being circumcised, nevertheless believed, as well as those who are circumcised and are citizens of the state of Israel, and who also had Abraham’s faith. The promise was received by Abraham through the righteousness of faith.

Undoubtedly this makes a straight comparison with old and new difficult.  It makes impossible the use of the OT theocracy in the era of Jeremiah 31.31  as it has in fact been treated Christianity or Christendom in the West. And it makes shaky those who see in the baptism of infants a follow on OT Israelitish circumcision.

So there is rather muffled, a somewhat ambiguous muzziness about the covenants, that to Abraham,  and especially that to Moses, and an especial skill or insightfulness is needed to trace the ‘line’ of the covenant of grace, of faith in the promise to Abraham, that through his seed (singular) may all the nations be blessed. This is partly because what happened in fact in the history of Israel is read back into the terms of the covenants themselves. We are required us to discern that the promises tied up in the original Abrahamic covenant and given to him, are revealed to have a different ‘weight’. They are not different facets of one covenant, it turns out, but different facets of different covenants, only one of which fulfils the promise to Abraham fully, the others having had different fulfillments in the OT, and these others are done away with the coming of Christ.

The  centre of gravity

For one further piece of this pattern we follow early Baptist theologians such as Nehemiah Cox by going for help to John Owen (one of the signatories of the Savoy Declaration), to his great commentary on Hebrews, Ch.8. John Owen stresses that  the death of Christ is the death of the testator, without which the terms of the testament will remain inoperative, null and void. (Heb. 9,17)

There are different ways in which the NT affirms these differences. In Hebrews, one way is to stress the sacrifices made every year, in which sin is remembered every year in the atonement, brought to the minds of the people, if they had thought about is a merely typical act of atonement. It is impossible for the blood of beasts can take away sin. This is sharply contrasted with that sacrifice whose efficacy is such that those who are recipients of such atonement have sins and iniquities remembered no more. Heb 10.11f

But the difference which is surely the most striking is that by the time of the coming of Christ the terms of the new covenant of Jeremiah 31.31 are not yet fulfilled, not until Christ’s death and resurrection. He is the covenant head and testator. Without and until the death of the testator the deed is not done  (Hebrews chs 9, 10.). The centre of gravity of the covenant of grace is placed firmly in the messianic era. What enables a situation in which all shall be taught of God. (John 6.45).  and the sins of men and women, of Jew and Gentile, shall be remembered no more? The answer is the death of the testator of the covenant, which occurred in the death and resurrection of the testator, Christ, according to the Letter to the Hebrews.

So what are we to say about the Mosaic covenant? That it was a national covenant, establishing Israel as a theocratic nation redeemed from the bond-slavery of Egypt. Its literature was partly typological of the world of the Messiah, and the maledictions attached to failure to keep the law were a continuous ‘preaching of the law’ to prompt the people to trust in the mercy of God and not in their own supposed righteousness. And in the mercy of God a remnant, including some Gentiles, had faith in and hope for what was to come. They did not receive what was promised (Heb 11.39).  And the entire edifice was a protective carapace to keep the Abrahamic covenant from being corrupted by alien cultures until the time of the Messiah’s coming.  Jesus was born into what remained of that carapace , hence he was circumcised. But by his death and what it effected he ushered in an era in which ‘neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’. (Gal. 6.15)

(In trying to get clear on these matters I have been helped by some of the writings on the covenants published by RBAP, particularly Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, ed. Richard A Barcellos (2014) and the literature cited therein. Especially, in this book, 'John Owen on the Mosaic Covenant' by Thomas Hicks. There is repetition in the book, and the of nuancing of positions, as well as inexact language, which, given the difficulty of encompassing all relevant biblical data in a 'doctrine of the covenants', is hard to justify.  Nevertheless, the trajectory must be the correct one. Sometimes one has the thought that there are data staring us in the face like loose jig-saw pieces, which (if we saw them for what they are), everything would be made much plainer. But maybe not.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Lord’s Prayer and Submission to the Will of God

In this short piece I wish to offer an interpretation of the most repeated and most familiar of prayers, the Lord’s Prayer. 

A modern view of prayer

When we reflect on it, on its spirit, nothing could be more different from the expressions of that piety which we routinely teach our children, a piety of taking Jesus into our hearts and of the need to establish a relationship with Jesus, partly if not wholly through asking things of him which in due course he will – or may not - provide  us what we ask for. What matters is our relationship to the Father, of which Jesus is the Mediator.

Nor is the Prayer easily related to how modern evangelical Christians speak of prayer, as if it is a sort of stuff: ‘He’s ill so he needs more prayer’. The idea of this is that prayer is a sort of force aimed in the direction of God, an unwilling or distant God, to get us what we want when other means fail, and even perhaps when other means haven’t failed. Sometimes we seem to think of prayer as a first-class delivery system, through the use of which we can ensure a rapid response.

A different model

This is a model of Christian prayer  taught by Jesus two thousand odd years ago about what his followers are to pray for  when they address  his Heavenly Father. It is not a prayer to Jesus taught by Jesus, but a prayer to his Father and our Father. Jesus is the mediator of our prayers, including teaching his people the spirit of prayer. He is not the one to whom are prayers are to be addressed.  No doubt Jesus’ prayers to his Father provide a kind of paradigm for the understanding of this prayer, the most familiar and yet the strangest of all prayers.

I suggest that the Lord’s Prayer is primarily intended to shape us, not to wake up the Lord. It is God-centred template for prayer. It emphasises not our needs but God’s transcendence and sovereignty. God, our Father, is in heaven, he is out Creator and Lord, and his name is to be hallowed, to be revered. He has a kingdom, and the petitioner seeks to align himself to the purpose of God with the bringing about of that kingdom. This has nothing to do with the problems in the Middle East, or the refugees, or the latest tragedy highlighted by the media. We are not asking the Lord to take charge of the H.M. foreign policy. It is not a prayer for peace, though elsewhere in the New Testament we are encouraged us to pray for peace.   The prayer is not that God's kingdom will be transformed into an earthly kingdom – the entirety of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom is against such an idea. This is that God’s kingly reign in heaven may be extended on earth. This is exactly what the early disciples in their first encounters with Jesus thought that he was, a revolutionary Che Guevara figure. In the case of God's kingdom men and women enter it through penitence and faith in the Messiah, the mediator of the covenant.

But what about ‘Give us this day our daily bread’?  Isn’t this the real business of the prayer, to get us those things that we want, and persuade ourselves what we need? Isn't this the difference that being a Christian brings, the possession of a hot line to the Almighty? After all, isn’t God concerned with every detail of our lives? The spirit of this petition is - alas! - very different from that of promoting a sort of Christian consumerism.  It is a request for bread that we need in order to live. It shows our dependence on Almighty God. Give us day by day the bread we need. The bottom line. In the last analysis it is God alone who can keep us going physically. It is a prayer both of submission to God, and of contentment with his care. It is not a prayer which  contains within it all the aspirations of worldly ambition, and which we are free to extend to the entirety of our wish list. The reverse.  It is a prayer that the Lord will give us contented spirit.

Such minds must include a forgiving spirit.  Why should we hope for forgiveness from God when we are unforgiving to those who upset us?  Our showing forgiveness to others, and especially to those who have offended or harmed us in some way, is not a condition of God forgiving us, as a quick reading of the petition may suggest.  But rather, how can we in reason expect the Lord to forgive our trespasses if we in turn have a spirit that is unwilling to forgive those who trespass against us, a mean-spirited and selfish outlook? It is incongruous to hope for our own forgiveness while at the same time we are hard-hearted to others.

A prayer of self-denial

And finally, the prayer returns us to where we began. The kingdom, the power and the glory are not ours, much less is praying to be centred on such concerns, our own advancement. The kingdom that  has no end, and the power and the glory of it,  are the Lord’s alone. And those people have a part in this coming glory who enjoy his free forgiveness, and who themselves have a forgiving spirit.

So the prayer is a prayer of discipleship. 

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Particular Baptists and the covenant

This is the fourth post in a series on Particular Baptist theology and its confessional roots. In it I shall sketch what are some good grounds for thinking that such theology takes a distinctive position on the covenant, or covenants, as we shall see. There is a considerable recent literature on this theme, from which I have learned a good deal. Because of this, my account will be sketchy. What I wish eventually to draw from this discussion of the covenants are some ecclesiastical consequences, which are touched on occasionally in the modern discussion. But more could be made of them, I believe. Such a view of the covenants seems to me to be critical for an overall account of the coherence of a Particular Baptist position.

First, a brief discussion of the differences between the Westminster Confession (1647) on the covenant, and the Baptist Confession of 1689. Then a discussion of the distinctive position adopted by some Baptists and some others.  The hermeneutical implications for the Baptist view of the church  will come in a following post.

The Confessional position

This is part of the wording of the covenant of grace in the Baptist Confession of 1689

It pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ….This covenant is revealed in the gospel: first of all to Adam…and afterwards by further steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.

This wording presents quite a different form of the revealing of the gospel from that of the Westminster Confession. The emphasis is on the gradual unfolding rather than a sharp revelation of the covenant that the Westminster Confession provides. (One covenant of grace, two administrations.) In the Baptist account there is a gradualist understanding of this ‘discovery’ (i.e. disclosing) of the covenant. The differences must not be exaggerated, but they are quite distinct, and the Baptist wording gives the covenant of grace a flavor of its own. (The Savoy Declaration (1658) is different in wording but very similar in meaning to the 1689 Baptist Confession, speaking of the covenant ‘being differently and variously administered in respect of ordinancies and institutions in the time of the law,  and since the coming of Christ in the flesh’. Yet it is ‘one and the same’…’covenant of grace (7.5))

The gradualist approach that we notice is to be understood as permitting a disentangling of the gospel from the law, in the case of Moses, and those matters which according to the Epistle to the Hebrews by now have ‘faded away’. (In the case of Abraham, the wording makes possible a similar disentangling of the progeny of Abraham as regards the scope of the covenant of grace. We’ll look at Abraham next time). With these disentanglings there comes an appreciation of the fact that under the Mosaic covenant different things were going on under the same administration. Some of these things were babyish representations of that covenant, destined to pass away. Others were social institutions that were intended to guard the integrity of the covenant people from the surrounding culture. (Gal.4. 2-3) Throughout there were also typical elements foreshadowing the coming of the covenant of grace in its fullness. I think that this may best be understood if we first consider the Mosaic covenant, and then the Abrahamic covenant. This appreciation of the gradual implementation of the covenant also provides for Jeremiah 31. 31, widely quoted and alluded to the New Testament,  being given its full weight. as we shall note later.


Paul’s teaching about the purpose of the law in Galatians is significant and critical. It is an important fact for him that the law came after the covenant was established, when it was first promised to Adam and given explicit covenantal form to Abraham. In that covenant with Abraham there is both an eternal and a temporal element. The law when it came to Moses was in fact a fulfillment of the covenant to Abraham in its temporal sense. The Mosaic law, as long as it endured, was as a fence, a guardian, ‘until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith’. ‘But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons if God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put in Christ’.  Although we often concentrate on the failure of Israel, Paul does not focus on failure. (Gal. 3.24-7)  The law despite the faithlessness of the people nevertheless served to keep a nation together until, despite exile and colonisation, until the coming of Christ. This temporary arrangement served the purposes of the outworking and flourishing of the covenant of grace, but was not itself an expression of that covenant, except in certain typological respects à la Letter to the Hebrews. It embraced both the moral, the judicial and the ceremonial law, looking forward to what which was to come in ‘the fullness of time’, when God sent his Son. The blessings of the covenant to those who are largely but not universally embedded within the line of Isaac.

But why did that covenant have this role as a guardian? It was the preservative condition for a time, preserving those Jews benefitting from its terms from cultural exposure to the surrounding nations and cults, for example. Its law and its penalties helped to erect and keep in place a preserving barrier for the coming of the messianic age. It did not itself confer the benefits of the covenant of grace.

But there were beneficiaries of the covenant of grace during that period as we can see from the heroes of faith of Hebrews 11, and from the deep faith of a remnant of the nation who welcomed the Messiah who came at the appointed time, in the fulness of time. In the detail of the OT there is evidence of a remnant within the nation who had received ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Deut.10.16; Rom. 2.28-9). Such poor and needy Jews, who feared the Lord, whose piety is expressed in the Psalms, who in the time of Elijah did not ‘bow the knee to Baal’, and so on.

Israel and ‘not Israel’

Then at the time of the coming of the Messiah there were individuals such as Anna and Simeon and the extended family of Jesus – his mother Mary (and no doubt Joseph), Elizabeth and Zechariah, whose lives we get a glimpse of, particularly in Luke’s gospel – in the words of the Magnificat and of Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1, in which the events of the new covenant are described using the conceptuality of the Old. Mary speaks of God remembering his mercy ‘as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring for ever’ (Lk. 1.55); and Simeon who ‘was waiting for the consolation of Israel’  (2.25) and Anna the prophetess who spoke of God ‘to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem’. (2.38)

At the same time there is evidence of the weaving of Gentiles into the history of Israel, and even of them being in the human line of the Messiah, typified by Ruth the Moabitess. So it was true of the history of Israel throughout, as it was true in Paul’s time: ‘So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace’ (Rom.11.5). And as Peter declared at the Council of Jerusalem, as the Gentiles were grafted in, in that sense that ‘the tent of David was being rebuilt…..that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles  who are called by my name.’ (Acts 15.16) There are two principles at work here: ‘Not all who are descended from Israel belong to  Israel’ (Rom.9.6) and ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”’. (v. 25) Who are these? Those ‘whom he has called, not only from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles’. (Rom. 9.24) Paul then cites Hosea’s prophecy, part of which has just been quoted, and words from Isaiah.

In the next post we shall look a little at the Abrahamic covenant, and then try to make sense of all this in terms of the outworking of the covenant of grace in  pre-Incarnation and post-Incarnation history.