More On Covenant Evangelism:

A reply from Norman Shepherd


Reproduced with permission from the Banner of Truth Magazine, November, 1977.

May I express my appreciation to Sinclair B. Ferguson for his review of The New Testament Student and Theology, Vol. III, and for the extensive attention given to my contribution to this symposium on "The Covenant Context for Evangelism." The review represents the kind of analysis and criticism necessary if we are to be of help to one another in searching the Scriptures to see whether these things be so (Acts 17:11).

Since the reviewer has invited me to "come again, so that we may hear him further on these matters," I am grateful for the opportunity to do so in the Banner of Truth Magazine. Hopefully we can advance the discussion a bit further as we seek consensus on the topics dealt with in the light of God's infallible word.

The reviewer properly draws attention to my failure to provide a definition of covenant and an explanation of what is meant by "covenant language". An adequate response would require another article, if not a book, but I shall try to state briefly what was in view.

Covenant is a descriptive of the organic relation between God and man. The very life of man, in distinction from all earthly creatures, resides in his communion with the living God through union with Christ who by virtue of his mediatorial accomplishment has become life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45). Covenant means that there is a radical distinction between God, the Creator, and man, the creature, but at the same time points to the fellowship in life between God and man. God made man for this fellowship, and man fulfills his "chief end" in this fellowship, glorifying God and enjoying him forever. This is his life.

The external arrangements governing this life-giving and life-sustaining relation flow out of and are grounded in the organic relation which provides the unity and continuity throughout the successive historical covenants described in the Bible.

Covenant language is simply language which is appropriate to describe this unique relation. Covenant language does two things: First, it ascribes to God alone and to his grace, anything which man is or has. It affirms the absolute sovereignty of God. Second, it views man as a fully responsible vicegerent of God who can live and enjoy life only in loving submission to God who is love made man to be what he is. All of Biblical language is covenant language, but especially in the Psalms, the songs of the covenant do we find vivid illustration of it.

Israel in Egypt was as good as dead. God alone called Israel to life and established Israel in the promised land (Deut 7:8). At the same time, God said to Israel, "Set your hearts unto all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you: because it is your life." (Deut 32:46,47). Covenant language says that life is exclusively the gift of grace and that it is entered into and sustained in the way of faith, repentance, and obedience.

Pagan thinking is definitively opposed to covenant thought and language and regards it as utter nonsense. The natural man does not have the Biblical distinction between Creator and creature and therefore by definition can have no concept of covenant or covenant language. For him, the will of God and the will of man operate in a single dimension. The only kind of sovereignty that could be ascribed to God is the kind which smothers human responsibility, and the only kind of genuine human responsibility possible is the kind which negates divine sovereignty.

Here we have the contours of the classic debate between Arminianism and "hyper-Calvinism". The dilemma is a holdover from the death-grip of Greek philosophy which dominated and darkened the Middle Ages. The death-grip is not loosened by holding the horns of the dilemma in tension with one another by means of a dogmatic tour de force.

Calvinism, and Calvinism alone, rejected the dilemma by means of its doctrine of salvation by grace (divine sovereignty) through faith (human responsibility), in terms of which grace did not render the exhortation to faith and repentance nugatory, but provided the only foundation on which the exhortations make sense. That is to say, Reformed theology is in the genius of its conception covenant theology.

In spite of the fact that the Bible from cover to cover is structured by the unfolding of the historical covenants culminating in the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus, neither pre- nor post-Reformation Roman Catholicism, nor Lutheranism, nor Arminianism paid any attention to the covenant. They could not, because they refused to make a clean break with the pagan-Greek-humanistic doctrine of man's free will. Only in the context of the Reformed faith did the doctrine of the covenant flourish.

Because Reformed theology is covenant theology and because Reformed evangelistic methodology must be expressive of the genius of Reformed theology, Reformed evangelism should be construed as covenant evangelism. To this day, Arminian evangelism pays no attention to the covenant. If Reformed evangelism pays no attention to the covenant, it is really not rue to its distinctive genius. The task before us is not to weave some doctrines of grace into a basically Arminian framework, nor is it to make the doctrines of grace palatable by interweaving some Arminian language with them. The unfinished task before us as Christians, reformed by the word of God, is to develop and implement a covenantal method of evangelism. My article was intended as a modest contribution to this effort.

With this background, I would like to take up three specific matters in the review which go to the heart of the article, which can serve as illustrative of my approach to other elements in the review which cannot be taken up without unduly lengthening this response.

1. The reviewer correctly perceives as a major thrust of my article that we should view election from the perspective of the covenant. He goes on, however, to associate this thrust with a criticism prevalent in academic circles that the doctrine of election as traditionally conceived is too "harsh", and that "we ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election."

It is essential to note that this second view in contrast to mine proposes to substitute covenant for election. It is clear that "covenant" in this instance is a Biblical word which serves to mask the modern [Arminian] conception of human freedom. Indeed, such freedom cannot coexist with the Reformed doctrine of election. Hence the substitution of the one for the other. We have here an example of the dilemma derived from non-Christian philosophy described previously: either divine sovereignty or human freedom. In this case, the critic have opted for human freedom.

The Reformed answer to this modern criticism of election is not to opt for the opposite horn of the dilemma. Such a conception of divine sovereignty is, indeed, harsh, but the offence is the offence of Greek determinism rather than of divine sovereign grace. I would assure my reviewer that I have no desire to "make God's secret counsels less harsh". In a lengthy review of James Daane's The Freedom of God, I defended the historic and full-orbed Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation against that author's attack on "decretal theology". (See The Westminster Theological Journal, XXXVI/3 (Spring, 1974), 305-333).

My article did not ask us to look at covenant instead of election. It asked us precisely and explicitly to look at election, but to do so in the only way legitimate for creatures, namely, out of the covenant relation in which God has placed us. When Paul addressed the Ephesians as the chosen in Christ, he did not pretend to a knowledge of their election identical with God's knowledge. To do so would have been to destroy the Creator-creature distinction. What he observed in Ephesus were "saints" who were "faithful in Christ Jesus" (1.1). He observed their standing in the covenant for this solely on the basis of God's sovereign electing love.

2. Both the reviewer and I want to preach as Jesus taught us, by exhorting men to strive to enter in by the narrow gate that leads to life. But we know that the unregenerate man has no power to enter of himself. For this reason, the reviewer stops short of finding here and exhortation to enter, but focuses on the striving as a precursor to regeneration. (We may ask in passing whether as Reformed pastors who believe in total inability, we really want to say that an unregenerate man can will to strive to enter any more than he can will to enter.)

If, now, we look at the precise language of the exhortation in the framework of the covenant, we see that it is addressed to one who is outside of the Kingdom. The presupposition is not that he has or has not the native ability to enter, but concretely that he is outside and that he must enter to be saved. The exhortation to enter (that is the purpose of striving) does not jeopardize the doctrine of total inability but honors the promise of the Spirit to accompany gospel exhortation with sovereign power (James 1:18, Peter 1:23).

We do not want to find ourselves impaled on the horns of the dilemma: the free offer of the gospel is Arminian and the denial of it is Reformed; or, the Arminians have the free offer, but the Reformed have the gospel. The Reformed alone have both the free offer and the gospel, because they alone have sovereign grace and understand sovereign grace to be covenant grace. Only Reformed evangelists have the theological structure which justifies a vigorous and impassioned plea to all men everywhere to repent of sin and believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. Whether the great Reformed evangelists of the past were conscious of this covenantal conception we can leave an open question; but I would venture to say that the conduct of their ministries in terms of it explains their power.

3. I now sincerely regret that the antithetical way in which I stated my third thesis (Baptism rather than regeneration is the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life) gave reasonable grounds for the criticism that on the one hand baptism was isolated from faith and conversion, and on the other the sign and the thing signified were confused with each other. The thesis would be better stated as follows: Baptism marks the point of transition from death to life. As the article goes on to say, "The covenantal focus on baptism does not mean that regeneration is discounted. It is rather put in proper perspective" (p 72), and "Baptism is therefore to be understood as of a piece with the total transformation which is salvation. It is the sacramental side of a total renewal (regeneration in the broad sense) of both the inner and the outer man" (p 73).

We must also say, of course, that the passage from death to life occurs at conversion, or regeneration, or union with Christ. But as creatures we cannot know precisely the moment when this takes place. It may take place before, or after or in conjunction with baptism; it may never take place at all. When, then, as far as the church is concerned, does a man become a Christian? Do we not have to say, when he is baptized? The only judgment the church is capable of making is a judgment as to a man's standing relative to the covenant, and the church is obligated to remind us of the "much neglected duty of improving our baptism" (Westminster Larger Catechism, 167, italics added).

Although the reviewer credits me with some measure of originality, I do not think the basic view which I am seeking to express is really new. Charles Hodge writes in his Systematic Theology, "Unless the recipient of this sacrament be insincere, baptism is an act of faith, it is an act in which and by which he receives and appropriates the offered benefits of the redemption of Christ. And therefore, to baptism may be properly attributed all that in the Scriptures is attributed to faith. Baptism washes away sin (Acts 22:16); we are therein buried with Christ (Rom 6:3); it is (according to one interpretation of Titus 3:5) the washing of regeneration. But all this is said on the assumption that it is what it purports to be, an act of faith" (Vol. III, p 589).

But is the act of faith sincere?

Again I would follow Hodge in saying that what is requisite for baptism is not a profession of faith which constrains belief, but one which is believable (p 569). The church "is bound to refuse to recognize as Christian brethren those who deny the faith, and those whose manner of life is inconsistent with the law of Christ"; but at the same time, "It cannot legitimately assume the prerogative of sitting in judgment on the hearts of men. It has no right to decide the question whether those who apply for the privileges of Christ's house are regenerate or unregenerate" (p 576).

The same sentiment is expressed by John Murray in his Christian Baptism (Phila: O.P. Comm. On Chr. Ed., 1952, p 42). Speaking of the examination of candidates for church membership he writes, "But this examination, it must be remembered, is not conducted on the premise that to the officers of the church or to the church as a communion is given the prerogative to determine who are regenerate and who are not. It is conducted, rather, on the basis that to the ministry of the church belongs the obligation to ensure as far as possible by instruction and warning that only those united to Christ will make the confession which only such can truly make. It is the function of the church to demand an intelligent, credible, and uncontradicted confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God..."

There is a significant difference between these two authors and the reviewer in this area. The reviewer holds, for example, that concerning the 3000 who were baptized on the Day of Pentecost, "the apostles must have judge these men to be truly regenerate". Hodge writes, "It is obviously impossible that there should have been any protracted examination of the religious experience of the three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost, or of the five thousand brought in by the sermon of Peter, recorded in the third chapter of Acts. The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the New Testament afford abundant evidence that the early churches did not consist exclusively of those whom the Apostles 'judged' to be regenerated persons" (p 577).

This is a difference which will, obviously, have to be explored very carefully. I believe that attention to the covenantal character of Reformed theology will serve to guard the main interests of both parties, and will contribute to a resolution of the difference and strengthening of our Reformed testimony. My immediate purpose, however, is simply to point out that the article under review moves in the line of the Old Princeton theology and in the line of my immediate predecessor at Westminster Seminary, John Murray.

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