The notion of “covenant” runs through every page of Scripture. Covenants come with obligations, blessings, and curses. Covenants can be unilateral or bilateral, meaning that one or both parties can have obligations. But generally, the biblical covenants are between God and man.
Why are Adam and Eve removed from Eden? Because they transgressed the covenant of creation. Why were Israel and Judah taken into their respective captivities? Because they transgressed the Mosaic covenant.
There are other covenants, as well, such as the Abrahamic covenant. What differentiates that covenant from the covenants of creation and Moses is that in the covenant made with Abraham, God shoulders all of the responsibility. He will unilaterally ensure that his promises come to fruition, such as the genealogical and land promises. The Noahic covenant is also unilateral; God will never destroy the world again through flooding, despite the faithfulness of mankind.
The London Baptist Confession teaches us mainly about the principle of covenant: God relates to his creatures through covenants. The Confession begins:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
What we owe to God we cannot give him because of our sinfulness. But because God willed that he would be glorified through both justice and mercy, he dispenses both perfectly. He relates to mankind through the covenants.
And this is not in itself bad, that God relates through covenants. It’s a necessary correlation to a being of divine nature relating to beings of created nature. If God is transcendent and we are not, there must necessarily be some means of relationship if there is to be one at all. Because God is both transcendent and immanent, we are able to be in a covenantal relationship with him. That is entirely his doing, or “voluntary condescension”.
Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth 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.
The Baptist tradition is covenantal, meaning that most Baptists recognize a covenant at creation even though it is never called that explicitly.
There were obligations: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
There we blessings: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29).
There were curses: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Implied in the opening chapters of Genesis is a blessing of eternal life, since eating of the tree brings death.
Because Adam transgressed the covenant of creation (sometimes called the covenant of works), God then made a covenant of grace. The eternal Godhead had ordained before the creation of the world that they would redeem fallen humanity and undo the curse that it would bring. Jesus Christ was always the means by which we would be saved, from the fall of man onward.
The covenant is eminently Trinitarian. And God displays the same gospel throughout every age. There are not multiple means of salvation, but only one all-sufficient Savior.
This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
Before the fall, there was always a plan within the Trinity to redeem those who fall. After the fall, God immediately showed fallen mankind what it would take to be redeemed. A substitution on behalf of fallen man was always the plan. God progressively revealed to mankind the means and the meaning of redemption.
The covenant of grace is a convenient way of understanding the one plan of salvation which God has always had. Of course, it was worked out over multiple other covenants, such as the Mosaic, Davidic, and New. The point is always be drawn back to Christ—he has always been the one mediator between a righteous God and fallen man. There is no going back to the covenant of creation/works. We will never again be innocent; we are pardoned through the blood of Christ. But much greater is the new covenant cut in Christ's blood.
Next week, we'll start looking at Christ the Mediator. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the longest entries in the Confession, and we'll spend several weeks studying it.
Everybody loves a good origin story. How many Batman movies have shown Bruce Wayne’s parents dying? One of the most successful Broadway musicals in years, Wicked, is based on a book of the same name. It’s all about Elphaba, the woman who would become the Wicked Witch of the West, and how she became the most hated woman in Oz.
Mankind has an origin story like none other. We were endowed with the ability to have eternal life through obedience. If our first parents had rejected sin and never eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we would not suffer the effects of sin today. We have since lost that moral liberty. It can only be restored by grace through faith.
The Confession states that “Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honour.” The truth is we do not know how long mankind stayed in their state of innocence. But in the course of Scripture, it was one measly chapter.
This introduces us to Baptist Covenant Theology. God always works with his people through a covenant. The prophet Hosea speaks of Israel breaking the covenant like Adam did, implying that Adam lived in relationship to God through a covenant (Hosea 6:7). The apostle Paul made a similar connection in Romans 5. If death entered the world because of Adam’s sin, then life entered because of Christ’s righteousness (Romans 5:17). We are either under Adam’s covenant or Christ’s.
In his most famous passage on the resurrection, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 21-22).
The covenants help us understand how we might be guilty because of another man’s sin. The Confession says, “Our first parents, by this sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.”
Romans 5 speaks of Adam’s sin following down to us, but Romans 3 also speaks of the sin that we have committed ourselves. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). If Adam’s sin was not enough to condemn us, then our own sin would surely do the trick.
The Confession speaks of Adam and Eve as “the root, and by God's appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation”. The covenantal theme is difficult to ignore. We both inherit the sin of our first parents, and we commit our own sins. If we are all in a covenant together, it makes sense. And yet, the gospel sets us free from bondage to sin and death, which the Confession acknowledges when it says, “unless the Lord Jesus set them free.”
Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Are we bound to a life of sin? Are we able to choose righteousness on our own? Can we change?
The Confession states clearly that unless the Spirit intervenes and applies the blood of Christ to our souls, we are bound to live in sin. “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.”
This again is the distinction between creaturely liberty and moral liberty. Creaturely liberty is choosing left or right, black or white, hard or soft. Moral liberty is choosing between righteousness or sinfulness. In the fall, we lost our moral liberty when our first parents chose to have the knowledge of good and evil by their own means.
Colossians 1:21-23 says it best. “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Paul says who we were, and now who we are. We were once as far from God as is possible. And when we were in that state of separation, he did everything that was necessary for reconciliation.
But what of the regenerate? Do we not continue to sin? How are those two things to be reconciled?
“The corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and the first motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.”
The truest believer has yet sins he will commit. Our nature is defeated though not yet gone. Through the atoning blood of Christ, we are forgiven for those sins. Paul acknowledges the remaining influence of sin in several places. In Galatians 5:17 he writes, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
In perhaps the clearest and most worshipful passage on the sin that remains in the believer, Paul writes in Romans 7, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (vv.21-25).
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the notion of God’s covenant.
The component of God’s providence that perhaps is concerning for many is that if God gives grace to the elect, what are his dealings with the non-elect? Does God make them do evil, wicked things in order that he will not be obligated to save them? Why does God choose some and not others? The Confession is helpful in understanding this difficult truth about the love and justice of God.
"As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as the righteous judge, for former sin doth blind and harden; from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts; but sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had, and exposeth them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others.”
The doctrine of man is called “anthropology”. Where one starts with anthropology will determine how one understands God’s providential dealings with both regenerate and unregenerate men.
If we believe that man is either naturally good or neutral and we are the product of choices and outside forces, then it seems unreasonable that God would ever judge anyone negatively. God would be a despot who makes arbitrary choices about people’s eternity.
However, if we hold to a view of anthropology that says that man is by nature corrupted and only chooses things that are contrary to God’s design, then we marvel at the fact that he shows grace to anyone at all. This is not a low view of man; it is a realistic and biblical view.
The apostle Paul says in Romans 1:24-25, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Does God create new evil in the hearts of man? By no means. That would make God the author of evil, which of course he is not. Sometimes God simply permits the natural course of a man’s sin to play out. For many, the only earthly punishment they might receive is the natural consequences of their actions. Providence helps us understand that two things can be true at once: God is in control of reality, and there are consequences for our actions built in to the fabric of reality.
In the Old Testament, we are often tempted to view faith as relatively unimportant to the people because they had a law to follow. That’s untrue. God still had to give the people faith for them to have it. God does withhold faith from some, but it is always for a purpose.
In Deuteronomy 29, Moses is renewing the Sinai covenant with the people. He recounts all that God has done for the people, which was hidden from no one. Then he says, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4). Miracles and wonders do not make anyone believe. At no other time in the history of redemption were more miracles performed in view of more people than during the wilderness years. And yet, God still had to actively open the eyes and ears and hearts of the people for them to have faith. In the millennial kingdom, after a thousand years of peace with Christ as king visibly on the earth, at the moment Satan is released there will be people who choose to follow him. Miracles might confirm the message, but only God gives faith to those whom he chooses.
As Isaiah preaches to the people to turn back to God, he realizes that God has ordered that some would not believe. Isaiah writes, “And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: “‘“Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive”’” (Isaiah 6:9).
When this troubles us, we must keep in the front of our minds a biblical anthropology. Man is not born as a blank slate or naturally good. Man is born sinful. Adam is our covenant head until Christ becomes our covenant head. King David knew this when he wrote, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). That was the only way he could understand why he behaved the way he did.
But for those who God loves and so chooses, the Confession says, “As the providence of God doth in general reach to all creatures, so after a more special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof.”
The same providence that permits sin’s natural consequences play out protects the church from his wrath. Instead of wrath, God’s providence brings about the good and blessing of the church.
So we can say that God does not create new evil the hearts of the unregenerate, but he passes over his mercy. But the church he showers with mercy and grace. God might leave us with our temptations for a time of discipline and spiritual growth, but he does not leave us completely.
God’s providence consists of his dealings with all creatures. And in Romans 9, Paul helps us understand why God might pass over some while saving others. In the mind of God, which understands all mysteries, saving some and not others acutely leads to the salvation of more people that if we were left to our own devices. Why? Because not one of us would choose to live a godly life in perfect obedience apart from Christ’s intervention and propitiation.
Next week, we will look at the doctrine of the fall of man and its consequences.
In God’s providence, he guides and directs the affairs of the world. God does not simply know what will happen; he orders the world to suit his will. Sovereignty is about who God is; providence is about what God does.
Now the Confession says, “God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.”
“Means” has to do with God working through nature. If God wants to bless a person, he might do so through another person. If God judges a nation, he might do so through the economy. However, God is not bound to work through nature since he is above and beyond nature. To say that God is required to work through nature would place him within nature, which he is not.
The sun standing still in Joshua 10 is a good case study. By having the sun stand still, he made it so that the Israelites would defeat their enemy. So in one sense, God worked through means (having the sun stand still). In another sense, God making the sun stand still simply happened because of his word, without means. However you look at it, God is the first cause of the whole event.
But what about sin? If God has providence over all creation, does he then permit evil? If so, then how does he hold anyone guilty?
The Confession is worth quoting at length. “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”
In Romans 11, the apostle Paul speaks about this issue directly. First he says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (v.32). All people are sinners, and that did not require God to sin. Think of you and your children (or future children). Without your involvement they would not be here. You raised and taught them. And yet they sin, do they not? Who do you hold responsible for their behavior? Of course, you discipline them because they have sinned.
The illustration holds not because we are God’s children but because God is greater than our parents. If a parent is not responsible for his child’s behavior, how much more is God not responsible for our behavior.
In the same vein, Paul notes that this is a mystery. He goes on to say, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor’” (vv.33-34)?
God does not make you sin any more than you make your child sin. It’s baked in to the cake on a cosmic level, a mysterious level. But God is so outside of what we call reality that he is not to be thought of as a puppet master any more than Sir Author Conan Doyle was a puppet master for Sherlock Holmes. Both Scripture and the Confession relate this mystery back to God’s goodness and wisdom. That is not to be disregarded.
At times God has purposes for permitting sin to remain, while his ultimate goal is to completely destroy it. “The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled[.]”
Christ “learned obedience” (Hebrews 5:8) through suffering. How much more should we learn through suffering? Christ was tempted in the desert by Satan himself, so how much more should we learn by battling temptations? While Christ had no former sins or had to learn the “hidden strength” of sin, we certainly do. God always provides a way of escape from temptation, but he does not necessarily always remove the temptation itself. If Christ suffered temptation without it being removed completely, we should expect the same, for the same glorious purpose: learning obedience.
Continuing in the same line of thought, the Confession then says, “to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for other just and holy ends. So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good.”
By temptation, we learn our own heart’s corruptions, we learn obedience, and we learn dependence on our heavenly Father. The outcome of defeating temptation is always holiness, which ultimately works for our good and our Father’s glory. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Next week, we’ll close our short study of God’s providence concerning those from whom God might withhold his grace.
Providence and sovereignty are related but are to be distinguished from each other. Sovereignty is who God is. He is by his very nature sovereign over all of creation. He has total authority, has full knowledge, and will share his glory with no one else.
On the other hand, providence is what God does. Providence is related to God’s will. God guides and directs all things to bring about his sovereign will.
The Confession begins the section on God’s providence with, “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.”
There is nothing outside of his purview. Small and great all receive the same care, because small and great alike would cease to exist without being upheld by their creator and sustainer. All things ultimately have the same purpose: to bring glory to its creator. Of course beyond that, creation clearly says that stars are for determining times and seasons, plants are for food, etc.
Baptists (along with most Protestants) affirm both God’s foreknowledge and his counsel. God’s counsel is essentially his desire for a certain outcome, and foreknowledge is that he knows what will happen. If you press too hard on one of these and not the other, you wind up distorting God’s providence. To say only that God possesses foreknowledge is to imply that God does not direct all things. To say only that God has counsel is that he may desire a certain outcome but cannot accomplish it. Upholding that God both knows and administers the future affirms his sovereignty.
Isaiah 46:10 says that God has been “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose[.]’” Before time began, God both willed and knew what the end would be. Before Genesis 1, God knew Revelation 22.
Does this then absolve mankind of all responsibility? Of course not; Scripture does not allow it. One example is Acts 2:23, which says that God planned the crucifixion and lawless man killed him. How can those two things be true at once?
The Confessions says, “Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.”
Too often we think of God as one of the Greek mythological heroes, or simply as greater than ourselves. God lives and operates within the same system that you and I do, so we think. But that would necessarily demean God to a created being, which of course he is not and cannot be. God can be outside of reality, can determine reality, and can not be a puppet master. For God to be a puppet master, he would have to be in the same system as the puppet.
Reformed theology recognizes two forms of liberty: creaturely and moral. Creaturely liberty is choosing what you do for a living, what you will have for dinner, and who you will marry. Everyone has that kind of liberty. What the unregenerate do not have, but what the regenerate have received as a gift, is moral liberty. Moral liberty was lost when our first parents sinned in the garden. When the Spirit indwells us, we are now endowed with moral liberty to choose righteousness. All of this is to show that sovereignty and providence do not inhibit moral responsibility in any meaningful way.
The Confession recognizes “second causes”. Second causes are those which are not God himself but would be responsible in a natural way. For instance, a natural disaster is a second cause, while God remains the first cause. In a better example, evangelism is a second cause. The Holy Spirit would be the first cause. One of the more recognizable Proverbs is Proverbs 16:33, which says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Men may make plans or have to deal with natural consequences, but God, outside of our system, guides and directs all things to his own glory.
Next week, we’ll look deeper at how God’s providence and the sinful actions of men play out together.