Baptism, Election, & the Covenant of Grace - Reviewed by Paul Manata

Not open for further replies.

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
For your reading pleasure:

Baptism, Election, & the Covenant of Grace
Reviewed by Paul Manata

I picked up R.S. Clark’s “Baptism, Election, & the Covenant of Grace,”” today. I wheeled it down the stairs at WSC with my dollie and loaded it into my van. I secured it with bungee cords for the trip to the local Barnes & Noble where I was able to read it during one sitting; but needed to go through four cups of coffee in order to persevere until the end! Coffee is a means of grace provided to readers so that they can make their reading and understanding sure.

The above description would seem to suggest that Dr. Clark’s above description of the “book” as a “mini me” is evidence of his humility. However, perhaps he was referring to the weight of the book qua material object, while I am referring to the weight of the content found therein. Nevertheless, we can refer to this “piece” in the same way the back of the “book” does: “Additional copies of this pamphlet are available from …”

“Baptism, Election, & the Covenant of Grace” is a 23 page (27 with end notes) essay contending that the “Federal Vision[’s] doctrine of baptismal benefits, their historical, conditional view of covenant and election is contrary to the word of God as confessed in the Reformed Churches and worthy of ecclesiastical discipline.” If I could summarize the essay as succinctly as possible I would put it this way: The Federal Vision (along with other systems that are not the main subject of this essay) identifies too closely the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (the benefits of Christ). This error is avoided by maintaining the necessary and historic reformed understanding of the external/internal feature (or aspect) of the covenant of grace.

Clark begins his essay with a brief look at four views on baptism, faith, and justification within Christendom (broadly construed). Stated another way, Clark briefly touches on four (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, and Baptist) different views regarding baptism, election and covenant; showing how one of those views (Protestant (defined as adhering to either the Westminster Standards of the Three Forms of Unity, specifically on the issues of baptism, election, justification, and the covenant of grace)) does not confuse “baptism with covenant and election, or strip it from the promises of God which make it a sacrament and a means of grace.”

As I said, these synopses are very brief and not meant to be exhaustive treatments of the various positions. Clark’s main purpose is to address the Federal Vision’s (FV) understanding of baptism, covenant and election. Therefore, those who hold to one of the three other positions besides the protestant position, should not spend too much time complaining about what could be considered oversimplifications or straw man representations of their position. Clark is not intending to offer a critical interaction with, say, the Reformed Baptist (RB) position. An RB could take exception to Clark’s claims that “In the Baptist confession, baptism is not about promises made by God in baptism and realized by faith, but only about present realities. If the realities symbolized by baptism are not present, one is not eligible for the ordinance.” The Baptist rejoinder is that the Bible teaches us, by way of example at least, that baptism is only to be administered to those who show signs of having the present realities because the New Covenant consists of only those who have the present realities, therefore, Dr. Clark is imposing an a priori theological construct onto the text of Scripture. Or, take the claim that the Baptist thinks, “If the realities are not present, then one is not eligible for baptism.” This seems to imply that the Baptist baptizes on a knowledge of election rather than profession. No doubt, some Baptists have implied as much, but the confession (LBC) only requires a profession since this is the “pattern of the Apostles.” And so the stronger representation of the Baptist position is that they only require a profession, not the “realities,” for only God can see the heart. Besides those details, there does seem to be a ring of truth in Clark’s claim that the Baptist “expects too much of the heavenly realities in this life.” (This would need to be defended, though.) But as I said above, a critique of Baptist doctrine (or the other two positions he mentions) is not the subject of his book, and so to make too much of his comments in this section would go beyond the scope and purpose of the book - the disciplinable errors of the FV.

Finally, the above is understandable given that Clark originally wrote the essay for The Outlook, a magazine aimed at laity in the confessional, conservative Dutch Reformed world and the essay was particularly aimed at folk in the URCs. It was intended to be a very simple, popular approach to a complex issue. He gave more advanced readers bibliographic links to more advanced treatments of some of these issues, especially CJPM and the more detailed treatment of the same question in the Confessional Presbyterian.1

After Dr. Clark briefly touches on the four views of baptism, election, and covenant, he summarizes what he calls the “scriptural teaching.” This section explores the biblical data for the “external/internal” features of God’s covenants (or, administrations of the one covenant). Clark points out that the Bible makes the external/internal (or, Bavinck’s shorthand, ““in/not of”) distinction. Not every circumcised person was regenerate. Jacob and Esau were both in the covenant of grace, but in different ways. Paul expresses the two ways this way: outwardly and inwardly Jewish (Rom. 2:28). There is advantage to being a Jew (Rom 3:1). However, this is not, and never was, enough.

It is interesting to pause and see some continuity. Frequently Baptists will tell us that it is an “advantage” for a child to be born into a Christian home. This seems very much like the “advantage” that all external covenant members had in the nation of Israel. Moreover, if the “advantage”” is that of a higher probability of salvation than if the child was born to pagan parents, then the Baptist might appear to be granting the doctrine of covenant succession. That is, if one has a better chance of being saved, then that one was elect (if saved). And so if we can assume a salvific advantage of our children over the children of pagans, and if the eternal covenant of grace was made with the elect, then we can assume, perhaps just as well as with a fallible profession of faith, that the children of believers are elect and thus members of the covenant of grace.

Back to the subject of this review. In response to the “external/internal distinction” the FV uses verses like Romans 6:1-4 to teach that all who have been baptized have been united to Christ (“head for head”). But, argues Clark, this misses the point Paul is making in Romans 6. Paul is responding to those who might not have a motive to be holy. They say that since it is all of grace, what does it matter if we sin. However, Paul responds that if you have died to sin you cannot live in it. Paul was responding to the adult Christians in Rome who were trying to make an argument for rampant anti-nomialism. Taking their profession in the judgment of charity, then we must assume that they have been united with Christ in his death. Their baptism has testified to this fact, but it is eminently important to note that their baptism has not effected this union. But, since baptism testifies to this past reality in their life, it does not follow that baptism must testify to dying with Christ as a past reality in the life of all in the covenant. It is believers who are united with Christ. This is by their faith, and not by their baptism.

In anticipation to a response that since Paul says “all” in the congregation have died to sin, we must assume that of “all” (head for head) have died to sin, it can be pointed out that the Bible does not speak this way. Frequently the entire community is addressed, even though we would not assume that infants or unregenerate covenant members (in some passages) were being referred to.

Some off the top of my head are:

Deut. 7:9 -- Then Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying, "Be silent and listen, O Israel! This day you have become a people for the LORD your God. (Can infants “be silent and listen?”)

Deut 30:12 -- “Assemble the people--men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns--so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.” (Can infants “listen” and “learn to fear” and “follow carefully?”)

I Sam. 4:5 -- As the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth resounded.

Jer. 41: 1-3 -- Then all the captains of the forces, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and Jezaniah the son of Hoshaiah, and all the people from the least even unto the greatest, came near, 2 and said unto Jeremiah the prophet, Let, we pray thee, our supplication be presented before thee, and pray for us unto Jehovah thy God, even for all this remnant; for we are left but a few of many, as thine eyes do behold us: 3 that Jehovah thy God may show us the way wherein we should walk, and the thing that we should do.

Joshua 24: 19-21 -- Joshua said to the people, "You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you." But the people said to Joshua, "No! We will serve the LORD."

Judges 2: 10-11 -- After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. (Head for head?)

The next section is titled “historical and systematic theology.” In this section, Clark brings out the views of Reformed theologians on the “external/internal” feature of the covenant of grace. He looks at Calvin, Olevianus, Witsius, Bavink, Berkof, and Vos. An important aspect in explaining the external/internal feature is the distinction between the substance and the accidents of the covenant of grace. The elect alone partake of the substance. And so there is the “narrow” (internal) sense of the covenant of grace, and the administrative (or, broad) sense of the covenant of grace. Hypocrites and unregenerate partake and participate in the administration alone. Thus we could say of the hypocrites that they have “once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” (Heb. 6:4-5). But, we could never say of them that they partook of the essence or the decree of the covenant of grace (the narrow, substantival sense). And so as Pink notes, ““Observe, they were not spoken of as God’s elect, as those for whom Christ died, as those who were accepted in the beloved. Nor is anything said of their faith, love, or obedience. Yet these are the things that distinguish a real child of God” (Pink, Hebrews, 290). Internal and external.

Next Clark looks at the “confessional teaching.” In this section Clark quotes the Heidlberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. In this section, Clark’s main goal is to show that the FV is at odds with confessional reformed thought. Clark points out that, for the children of believers who die in infancy, our hope is not in their baptism, but in their relationship to the believing parent. That is, God has made a promise to believers and their children, not to mere professors and their children. By placing the “basis” of our belief that our children are elect in their baptism, rather than their link to believing, pious, and holy parents, then the FV has placed all those in the covenant, unregenerate and hypocrite and reprobate even, as recipients of the promise. This “confuses profession of faith with true faith, ignored the crucial role of true faith as the sole instrument of justification, and that which distinguishes those who have Christ’s benefits from those who have only the administration of the covenant.” A baptized person has entered into the external covenant, but a child of Abraham is a Jew who is one inwardly and not merely outwardly. Not all circumcised had a circumcised heart.

Dr. Clark closes his essay with a section on “pastoral theology and conclusions.” He offers a vivid story about a church who has a pastor who teaches that “the distinction between law and gospel is Lutheran, and that there is no distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, and that our covenant children our conditionally and temporally elect, united to Christ, justified, and adopted by God in baptism, that infants are eligible for communion, and that baptized persons shall retain Christ’s benefits if they cooperate with grace.” Then, this church loses that pastor, gains a new one, and their new pastor teaches “just the opposite.” He says that ““law is one thing and the gospel another, that the covenant of works and grace are quite distinct, that baptism is a sign and seal of the promises of the covenant of grace but does not itself confer all those benefits even temporarily, that one must make a credible profession of faith before communion, and that election is unconditional and eternal.” Clark then makes a piercing and provocative (to some, at least) comment: “It is evident that our imaginary congregation shall have been taught two quite different and incompatible accounts of the reformed faith and life.” And, depending on how close he makes the relationship between his summary of the Roman Catholic position and the FV position, Clark says that it is a “repetition of the Judaizing doctrine of grace plus works, i.e., “another gospel” (Gal. 1:7-9). This link and charge is not explicitly made in the essay, though.

Clark says that Reformed churches should “reject the root error” of FV theology, e.g., “their doctrines of baptism, election, and covenant, and in doing so we shall cut off the blood supply to their doctrine of paedocommunion.”” I may be reading too much into this, but the comment about “the root” is interesting since R.S. Clark is a Van Tillian and Dr. Cal Beisner had said that Van Til’s epistemology and apologetic was the “root” of Federal Vision theology ("The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons: Debating The Federal Vision," editor Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, Beisner, p. 320).2

Clark also asks if Esau was historically and temporally elect, united to Christ, and justified. He says some Federal Visionists have said “Yes!”, but he lost those benefits by unbelief and disobedience. I must wonder, then, does God ““hate” or “love” those who are united to Christ? If he hates them, how so, and what biblical warrant is there for this? If he loves them, then shouldn’t God have said, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated, then loved for a while, then hated again”? In light of their comments about Esau, Clark concludes, “Therefore it seems to me that the Reformed churches have a solemn duty to protect our churches from the errors of the Federal Vision.”

Overall, I would say that “Baptism, Election & the Covenant of Grace” is a fine essay; I would recommend it for your theological book, er, “pamphletshelf.” Even if I would have a quibble here or there, a desire for more thorough explanation or better representation of some positions, I recognize that the main purpose of this essay is meant to be a response, in laymen’s terms, to the Federal Vision. I would also commend Dr. Clark for trying to bring back into focus the traditional Reformed understanding of the “external/internal” feature of the covenant of grace. I think this is a fertile, underdeveloped, and quite possibly a neglected area of Reformed covenant theology that could benefit from further study, rigorous and analytic analysis, and the combined tools of the Reformed philosopher and the theologian in order to develop a more robust, clear, and defensible statement of this doctrine.. But now I am just moving beyond the scope of this review and venting some of my personal feelings on this matter. Having said that, I hope I have given you the feel of Clark’s essay and argument, as well as piqued your interest in purchasing your own copy. I bought mine for $1.33! For the price of a coffee, you too could have “Baptism, Election, & the Covenant of Grace.”

1 This was told to me by Dr. Clark in personal conversation.

2 Though Dr. Clark does think Dr. Beisner is off on this remark, he would like to express that this in no way takes away from his agreement with Dr. Beisner regarding the errors of the Federal Vision. He is thankful for the work that Dr. Beisner has done in this area. This was also relayed to me by way of private correspondence.
Not open for further replies.