Covenantalism under the Microscope - Part 3
Abstract: Covenantalism is a prominent theological system that is founded on a false theological presupposition. As is usual of false systems, covenantalism manufactures a “universal principle” based on a limited consideration of only a portion of Scripture, and then interprets Scripture in light of that principle – often ignoring vast portions of Scripture that expose their error. In some regards, this tendency is akin to the way Arminians defend their false view of salvation and import their false presupposition of free will into key texts. Major features of covenantalism are falsely deduced from an assumed hypothesis of the universality of rituals as “signs and seals.” Oddly, the evolution of such signs and seals actually shows more affinity to some brands of dispensationalism, i.e. as an evolving system of varying temporary signs and seals that give way in time to newer signs and seals of (hypothetical) “salvation” for the partakers thereof. One particular aspect of this is how the literal Israel is really not elect but a reprobate that metamorphoses into the Body of Christ, and then Scriptures pertaining to Israel are distorted to apply to the Body (“spiritual” Israel). This is a feature not unlike Scoffield dispensationalism’s “period of testing/failure” or the Arminian Plan-A, Plan-B approach to prophecy, or even worse that the meaning of Scripture has changed over time.
In this study we will continue our examination of the sacerdotalism inherent in covenantalism as laid out in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
NOTE: All quotes from Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith, are copyright (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995.
I. Broad Outline of topics
A. Review of Previous studies
B. Covenantalist views on nature of covenants and sacraments
C. Elaboration on sacramentalism and sacerdotalism of Presbyterianism. Exclusive priesthood of Prebyterian ministers.
D. Does water baptism replace circumcision? Examination of WCF “proof texts.” Do they meet the WCF’s own standard of “good and necessary inference”?
A. Eschatological errors of covenantalism.
1. All of the redeemed reside in heaven in the eternal state.
2. Thus, Covenantalism destroys promises made personally to Abraham
a. Abraham’s eternal earthly hope is denied.
b. The basis of Abraham’s hope of resurrection is destroyed.
B. Covenantalism employs a false “two covenant” (Old Covenant/New Covenant = Old Testament/New Testament) model of Scripture.
1. Phraseology seems to be Hebrew/Greek Scriptures (i.e. that man-made section divider in all Bibles)
2. Biblical view:
a. There are more than two covenants
b. Noahic covenant and Noahide laws for Gentiles
c. Abrahamic covenant
d. Mosaic covenant (the old covenant; the Mosaic law)
e. New Covenant [based on Christ’s work on the cross but is still made with Israel (Jer. 31:31 seq.)]
f. Key question: If the covenant of grace requires signs and seals, what was the sign and seal prior to circumcision? Note that the covenantalist Berkhof admits the absence of "sacraments" prior to Abraham in his Systematic Theology, p. 619: "That [sacraments] are not absolutely necessary unto salvation follows from: ... and (4) from the fact that many were saved without the use of sacraments. Think of believers before the time of Abraham ..." (Emphasis added.) Berkhof has unwittingly defeated himself and covenantalism. For the covenantalist view of "sacraments" as signs and seals of the covenant of grace cf. III.C and V below.
III. Exclusive priesthood of Prebyterian ministers.
A. Definition of “sacerdotal” from New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
Sacerdotal ... 1. Of or pertaining to a priest or the priesthood; befitting or characteristic of a priest; priestly ... b Holding the office of a priest. 2 Of a doctrine etc.: ascribing sacrificial functions and supernatural powers to ordained priests; derog. claiming excessive authority for the priesthood.
B. Comment: Presbyterians will deny they are “sacerdotal” (a term they reserve for Roman Catholics using the secondary definition). We have seen that they are sacerdotal according to the primary definition.
C. They are an exclusive channel of grace through the administration of the “sacraments”
1. They are exclusive:
a. WCF. “Chap. XXVII. - Of the Sacraments *** 4. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained. (Matt. 28:9, 1 Cor. 11:20,23, 1 Cor. 4:1, Heb. 5:4)”
b. Larger Catechism Question. 176: “Q: Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper agree? A: The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper agree, in that the author of both is God; (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:23) the spiritual part of both is Christ and his benefits; (Rom. 6:3–4, 1 Cor. 10:16) both are seals of the same covenant, (Rom. 4:11, Col. 2:12, Matt. 26:27–28) are to be dispensed by ministers of the gospel, and by none other; (John 1:33, Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:23, 1 Cor. 4:1, Heb. 5:4) and to be continued in the church of Christ until his second coming. (Matt. 28:19–20, 1 Cor. 11:26)”
2. They are a channel of grace and thus mediators of the covenant of grace just as the Roman Catholics. Sections of documents that conjoin grace and the sacraments. And the only way you can get this grace is through a Presbyterian minister.
a. Note the repeated use of Rom. 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:11-12; Tit. 3:5, in the following quotes as support texts for water baptism! All of these verses are anhydrous; they have nothing to do with a water ceremony.
(1) XXVII.3 (cf. infra);
(2) XXVIII Of Baptism. “1. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, (Matt. 28:19) not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; (1 Cor. 12:13) but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, (Rom. 4:11, Col. 2:11–12) of his ingrafting into Christ, (Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:5) of regeneration, (Tit. 3:5) of remission of sins, (Mark 1:4) and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3–4) Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world. (Matt. 28:19–20) *** 6. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; (John 3:5,8) yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time. (Gal. 3:27, Tit. 3:5, Eph. 5:25–26, Acts 2:38,41)”
c. Larger Catechism:
(1) Question 162. “Q: What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, (Gen. 17:7,10, Exod. 12 (containing the institution of the passover), Matt. 28:19, Matt. 26:26–28) to signify, seal, and exhibit (Rom. 4:11, 1 Cor. 11:24–25) unto those that are within the covenant of grace, (Rom. 15:8, Exod. 12:48) the benefits of his mediation; (Acts 2:38, 1 Cor. 10:16) to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; (Rom. 4:11, Gal. 3:27) to oblige them to obedience; (Rom. 6:3–4, 1 Cor. 10:21) to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; (Eph. 4:2–5, 1 Cor. 12:13) and to distinguish them from those that are without. (Eph. 2:11–12, Gen. 34:14)”
(2) Question 163; “Q. What are the parts of the sacrament? A: The parts of the sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ’s own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified. (Matt. 3:11, 1 Pet. 3:21, Rom. 2:28–29)”
(3) Question 167; “Q: How is our baptism to be improved by us? A: The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; (Col. 2:11–12, Rom. 6:4,6,11) by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; (Rom. 6:3–5) by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; (1 Cor. 1:11–13, Rom. 6:2–3) by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; (Rom. 4:11–12, 1 Pet. 3:21) by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; (Rom. 6:3,4,5) and by endeavoring to live by faith, (Gal. 3:26–27) to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, (Rom. 6:22) as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; (Acts 2:38) and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body. (1 Cor. 12:13,25)”
(4) Question 168. “Q: What is the Lord’s supper? A: The Lord’s supper is a sacrament of the New Testament, (Luke 22:20) wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to the appointment of Jesus Christ, his death is shewed forth; and they that worthily communicate feed upon his body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace; (Matt. 26:26–28, 1 Cor. 11:23–26) have their union and communion with him confirmed; (1 Cor. 10:16) testify and renew their thankfulness, (1 Cor. 11:24) and engagement to God, (1 Cor. 10:14–16,21) and their mutual love and fellowship each with the other, as members of the same mystical body. (1 Cor. 10:17)”
(5) Question 174. “Q: What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper in the time of the administration of it? A: It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, (Lev. 10:3, Heb. 12:28, Ps. 5:7, 1 Cor. 11:17,26–27) diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, (Exod. 24:8, Matt. 26:28) heedfully discern the Lord’s body, (1 Cor. 11:29) and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, (Luke 22:19) and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; (1 Cor. 11:26, 1 Cor. 10:3–5,11,14) in judging themselves, (1 Cor. 11:31) and sorrowing for sin; (Zech. 12:10) in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, (Rev. 22:17) feeding on him by faith, (John 6:35) receiving of his fullness, (John 1:16) trusting in his merits, (Phil. 3:9) rejoicing in his love, (Ps. 53:4–5, 2 Chron. 30:21) giving thanks for his grace; (Ps. 22:26) in renewing of their covenant with God, (Jer. 50:5, Ps. 50:5) and love to all the saints. (Acts 2:42)”
d. Shorter Catechism:
(1) Question 94. “Q: What is baptism? A: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, (Matt. 28:19) doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s. (Rom. 6:4, Gal. 3:27)
(2) Question 96. “Q: What is the Lord’s supper? A: The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace. (1 Cor. 11:23–26)
D. We need not merely quote the WCF. Reformed commentators affirm the mediatorial role of Presbyterian priests throughout their writings and commentaries. Typical are the following statements (emphases added):
1. Michael Horton, in " Mysteries of God and Means of Grace" (http://home.christianity.com/ministries/ace/48101.html) states: "Surely the Sacraments can remind us of grace, help us to appreciate grace, and exhort us to walk in grace, but do they actually give us the grace promised in the Gospel? The Reformed and Presbyterian confessions answer "yes" without hesitation. A Sacrament not only consists of the signs (water, bread and wine), but of the things signified (new birth, forgiveness, life everlasting). And yet, the experience of Reformed and Presbyterians churches in the odd world of American revivalism has challenged the confessional perspective."
2. Greg L. Bahnsen in a “Lecture on Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion” states: "What is the Reformed view of the efficacy of the sacraments? The sacraments are efficacious through the work of the Holy Spirit, and they are always efficacious, not in virtue of the church, not in virtue of man's non-resistance, but in virtue of the power of the Spirit. And they are always efficacious to either bless or curse their recipients. The Holy Spirit is present in the sacrament. And so if you have unworthy people being baptized, children who rebel or adults that are hypocrites, or you have unworthy people taking the Lord's Supper, the sacrament is still efficacious to curse you in the power of the Holy Spirit. What proof do we have of that? What comes to your mind? 1 Corinthians where Paul says some of you are sick and even have died because you were taking the Lord's Supper in an unworthy way. Okay, well, here on the top of page 1286, Calvin says, 'The Spirit confirms it when, by engraving this confirmation in our minds, he makes it effective.' According to the Calvinist approach, the Holy Spirit makes the sacraments efficacious." [Greg L. Bahnsen, Lecture on Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, tape #GB1125]
3. A.A. Hodge, in Outlines of Theology, writes: "19. State the doctrine of the Reformed churches on this subject [Doctrine of Protestant Churches as to the Efficacy of the Sacraments] . . .Hence as to the efficacy of the sacraments the Reformed--1st. Deny that they confer grace as an "opus operatum." 2d. They affirm that they convey no grace to the unworthy recipient. 3d. That their effiacacy is not of the mere moral power of the truth they symbolize. 4th. That they do really confer grace upon the worthy recipient. 5th. But they do this instrumentally, because the supernatural efficiency is not due to them, nor to him that administers them, but to the Holy Spirit who as a free personal agent uses them sovereignly as his instruments to do his will ("virtus Spiritus Sancti" extrinsicus "accedens"). 6th. That as seals of the covenant of grace they convey and confirm grace to those to whom it belongs, i.e., that is to those who are within that covenant, and in the case of adults, only through a living faith. 7th. That the grace conferred by the sacraments often is conferred upon true believers before and without their use." [Outlines of Theology, A.A. Hodge, Banner of Truth, page 596 ].
4. Remark: Couple these reformed comments/interpretation with the exclusive nature of the Presbyterian ministers (cf. III.E next and V.A below) and one sees that the Presbyterian ministers are self-consciously mediators of blessings/grace. Thus their confession denies Christ as the sole One mediator just as the Roman Catholics. The doctrine is just as heretical.
E. The eldership of Presbyterianism is viewed as holding the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” [Incidentally, this is a power only committed to Peter (Matt. 16:9) and the 12 (Matt. 18:18-20). Cf. also, John 20:21-3. These are cited as “proof texts” by the WCF!]. We certainly agree with discipline by the elders of a local assembly, but the point we make is that when coupled with the exclusive power of administrators of a channel of grace and the powers to “retain and remit” sins (a power manifested by Peter in Acts 5 with Ananias and Sapphira). And as the “protectors” of the “sacraments” (their priest-craft) (sec. 3), we have a blending of soteriology and ecclesiology. (Emphases added in the following quote)
" Chap. XXX. - Of Church Censures...
1. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate. (Isa. 9:6–7, 1 Tim. 5:17, 1 Thess. 5:12, Acts 20:17–18, Heb. 13:7,17,24, 1 Cor. 12:28, Matt. 28:18–20)
2. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require (Matt. 16:19, Matt. 18:17–18, John 20:21–23, 2 Cor. 2:6–8)
3. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders. (1 Cor. 5, 1 Tim. 5:20, Matt. 7:6, 1 Tim. 1:20, 1 Cor 11:27–34, Jude 23)
4. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church, according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person. (1 Thess. 5:12, 2 Thess. 3:6,14–15, 1 Cor. 5:4–5,13, Matt. 18:17, Tit. 3:10) "
IV. Hermeneutical errors. Presbyterian eisegesis. (They read their presuppositions into the text and argue by analogy)
A. The Presbyterian argument for sacraments is based on analogies. Analogies are not valid arguments. They thus violate their own standards
B. WCF. I.6 The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men. (emph. added).
V. WCF on Sacraments
A. "Chap. XXVII. - Of the Sacraments
1. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, (Rom. 4:11, Gen. 17:7,10) immediately instituted by God, (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:23) to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: (1 Cor. 10:16, 1 Cor. 11:25–26, Gal. 3:27, Gal. 3:17) as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; (Rom. 15:8, Exod. 12:48, Gen. 34:14) and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word. (Rom. 6:3–4, 1 Cor. 10:16,21)
2. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. (Gen. 17:10, Matt. 26:27–28, Tit. 3:5)
3. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: (Rom. 2:28–29, 1 Pet. 3:21) but upon the work of the Spirit, (Matt. 3:11, 1 Cor. 12:13) and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers. (Matt. 26:27–28, Matt. 28:19–20)
4. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained. (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:20,23, 1 Cor. 4:1, Heb. 5:4)
5. The sacraments of the old testament in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new . (1 Cor. 10:1–4)"
B. In regard to sec 5. This is the key paragraph that supports their view that water baptism replaces circumcision. But we have already noted:
1. If the covenant of grace requires signs and seals, what was the sign and seal prior to circumcision?
2. Why weren’t Paul and James aware of this replacement (Acts 21)? And why was the Jerusalem church performing both water baptism and circumcision at the same time ?
3. Both of these points destroys the covenantalist arguments.
4. This is also the lynch-pin of their argument by analogy that infants should be baptized since infants were circumcised. Another fallacious argument.
C. Comments on texts:
1. Rom. 4:11 (cf. Context Rom.4:1-16)
a. Note: water baptism is not even in the context!
b. The context is within the topic of faith and justification, and its relation to the circumcision and the uncircumcision.
c. Paul’s point is not an argument for water or a ritual of any kind! It is an argument that faith and justification are totally apart from ceremonies. To read water in this passage is completely wrong. If that was Paul’s point he had every opportunity to say so. The entire WCF proof text is an argument from analogy that presupposes one must have a sign and seal of “the covenant of grace.” (They have already assumed what the text is supposed to prove). Of course an argument from analogy is:
(1) not valid.
(2) not a deduction
(3) not a good and necessary inference.
d. Further the only ceremony/ritual under discussion within the topic of justification is circumcision which marked the distinction between Jews and Gentiles (the dividing wall).
e. Paul’s major point is that Abraham believed while yet uncircumcised!
f. Afterwards, i.e. after his faith, he received the sign of circumcision that marks Jews apart from Gentiles. It is this that makes Abraham the father of all those who believe – whether circumcised or uncircumcised (v.16). Abram was a gentile “called-out” to a new hope of the circumcision.
g. Incidentally note that since Abraham is the father of all those who believe that includes Abel, for example. [See Rom. 4:21 also. Abraham believed in what God promised – each example is literal.]
h. Summary: Paul’s topic is justification by faith apart from works. To read a ceremonial replacement of circumcision by baptism is to destroy Paul’s whole argument.
2. Gen 17:7,10. What’s the point? These are just the texts that Paul would have had in mind. The Abrahamic covenant did not set up a divide between the justified and the unjustified! After Abraham, Gentiles did not need to believe and become circumcised. There were saved Gentiles after Abraham. If the Abrahamic covenant established a divide between those visibly within the covenant of grace and those without, then the Judaizers’ argument is correct. One would need to become circumcised to enjoy all of the benefits of the “covenant of grace” (as then falsely ascribed exclusively to the Abrahamic covenant), for only those who were circumcised exercised all of the “benefits” mentioned in the above sections on “sacraments.” Note especially:
a. The uncircumcised then had no sign and seal of the “covenant of grace,” (sec.1). That would also include Jewish women (maybe they were included by a Mormon-like ride on the coat-tails of the men?)
b. The uncircumcised had no “visible difference” between them and the “Church” (sec. 1).
c. But as we have noted, James upheld the Noahide laws in Acts 15 and 21 for Gentiles. He did not require circumcision for Gentiles converts and he acknowledged the continuation of circumcision for the believing remnant of Israel.
VI. Conclusion and summary. Covenantalism is a heretical schism in the Body of Christ
A. It has eschatological errors. Covenantalism denies the hope of Abraham and thus the basis of his hope of resurrection and the proof of the personal resurrection of the fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
B. It has hermeneutical errors based on their covenantal/sacramental axioms.
C. It confesses many mediators in the Presbyterian priesthood in violation of 1 Tim 2:4, just as the Roman Catholics. It thus conjoins soteriology (particularly, the Presbyterian priests as the sole agents of a “means of grace”) with ecclessiology – not to the extent of the Roman Catholics.
D. The covenantal/sacramental view is also fundamentally inimical to the Baptist theology. This is the non-negotiable divide between Presbyterians and Baptists – each make their irreconcilable water ceremonies the sine qua non of their unity (contra the one baptism of Eph. 4:5).
1. When the WCF refers to water baptism and that it is not to be contemned, it has in mind its particular water ceremony – that includes what it means, what it does, and by whom it is to be performed. The Presbyterian water is not the same as the Baptist water.
2. Likewise, someone who was infant baptized must be rebaptized as an adult to “join” a Baptist fellowship.