Archive for April, 2014

The Suspended Reformation

April 15, 2014

The Suspended Reformation

The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was a wonderful work of God.  Little by little, dogma by dogma, the Reformers cast off the chains of medieval Romanism.  It took time.  It did not happen overnight.  There were differences and disagreements among the reformers.  But gradually they rejected such errors as the infallibility of the pope, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, the sale of indulgences, the worship of the Virgin Mary, and so forth.

But then the Reformation ground to a halt in some respects.  There were some Roman errors they were reluctant to abandon.  The leading Reformers brought some baggage with them when they left Rome.  This was partly due to ingrained habit, partly caused by fear, but also partly caused by the wild blunders of reforming extremists.

All down the running centuries there had been individuals and groups who had protested against doctrinal errors and unbiblical behaviour.  Usually such attempts at reform had been suppressed, often with extreme ferocity and cruelty.  The Reformation period was no different in that respect.

In the sixteenth century there were many groups who protested against the errors of the medieval church.  Unfortunately they have often erroneously been lumped together under the opprobrious name, “Anabaptists” because they nearly all recognized that infant baptism was an egregious error and sought to restore the biblical practice of the baptism of believers only.  But these groups differed widely among themselves.  They should never be linked together.

There were at least four distinct groups.  There were the ‘Inspirationists’ who, like some modern charismatics, believed in the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit for their doctrine and practice.  Then there were the ‘Rationalists’, who held to the supremacy of the human intellect and were the equivalent of modernists and liberal theologians of recent years.  Worst of all were the ‘Revolutionaries’.  These not only fell into many doctrinal and moral errors but also attempted to set up the Kingdom of God by force.  Notable among these latter sectarians was a group located at a town called Munster.  So bad were they that both Roman and Reformed forces attacked them.  Up until this point Martin Luther had been attracted to the truth of believer’s baptism, but the tragedy of the Anabaptist Munsterites so horrified him that he rejected believer’s baptism as associated with extreme error.

There were, however, a group of well-educated and sincere men, some of them priests, who sought to be biblical, balanced and godly.  These gathered around the Swiss priest and reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531).  One by one they rejected Roman errors and eventually came to baptism.  Zwingli himself came to a position where he realized that infant baptism was wrong, and that believer’s baptism was the correct form according to the New Testament.  He actually wrote, “Nothing grieves me more than that at present I have to baptize children, for I know it ought not to be done.”  However, he was cautious, while the group he led wanted to push ahead.

It is important to remember that all the countries dominated by the pope were “sacral societies.”  That is, church and state were united.  Everyone living in a “Christian” country was expected to conform to the religion of that country.  Israel had been a sacral society of course.  Now the group around Zwingli came to see that union of church and state was unbiblical.  They wanted to separate the church from the domination of the state.  This alarmed Zwingli, who was afraid that if they pushed ahead with this reform it might de-rail the whole Reformation.  Furthermore it was dangerous; as such ideas might be regarded as treason.   Zwingli debated the issue of baptism with his group and at the end of the debate the city council ruled in favour of infant baptism, which conclusion Zwingli, holding to the idea of a sacral society, dutifully accepted.  So he withdrew from the truth of believer’s baptism and cast around for a basis for infant baptism.  He knew that there was no New Testament basis for it, but he hit on the idea of a covenant basis for it.  His idea was that there was one over-arching covenant in the Bible, so just as babies had been circumcised in the Old Covenant, they could be baptized in the New Covenant.  The idea of a parallel between circumcision and baptism had been mooted before, but never on a covenantal basis.  So Covenant Theology was born in order to defend infant baptism.  It was taken up by Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor, and then John Calvin and other reformers took up the idea.  Zwingli’s group, however, went ahead with believer’s baptism and suffered as a result.  At least one was martyred, others were exiled.

So in the teaching of many of the Reformers, infant baptism and the idea of a sacral society lived on.  In that sense, the Reformation was suspended.  The errors of a sacral society and infant baptism have persisted to this day in State Churches, such as the Church of England.

However, there are many believers today, particularly among Baptists and similar denominations, who are awakening to the need to continue the work of Reformation.  They have realised that Covenant Theology, infant baptism and the sacral society are wrong.  They have begun to emphasise the New Covenant.  The main thrust is that the teaching of Christ and his apostles should be accepted and followed, not the half-hearted reformation which partly clings to the Old Covenant with Israel and is expressed in Covenant Theology.  This emphasis, though centuries old, has been called in the last few years, “New Covenant Theology.”  I am not at all sure that giving it that title, though accurate in its meaning, has been entirely helpful.  Let me illustrate that from more recent history.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement in the USA known as the “Shepherding Movement.”  It was led by five outstanding men known as the “Fort Lauderdale Five” since that is where for a time they were located.  They deliberately resisted forming their adherents into a new denomination.  But in a recorded interview, Ern Baxter, one of the five, recalls that ‘some of the denominational people came to us and said, “Look if only you were a denomination then we could attack you – the proper way”.[1]   It seems that being united under a label made them liable to attack.  On one occasion I was preaching in Northern Ireland and in all innocence I mentioned that the word ‘pastor’ in Ephesians 4:11 was the same word translated ‘shepherd’ elsewhere.  Afterwards a leader came to me and said, “Very controversial, very controversial.”  I asked him what was controversial and he told me that I had mentioned the word “shepherd.”  The head of a Christian organization to which he belonged had sent down a fiat that on no account were they to allow the shepherding movement to be mentioned!

More recently a number of widely differing Calvinist ministers have been saddled with the label “The New Calvinists” and have been severely criticised in two books.  Some of them deserve the criticisms, but others are merely counted as guilty because they have appeared on the same platform as some of the more worldly men.

Just so with the men who have accepted certain biblical positions as taught in the New Testament and held by many for centuries.  Since they have now come under the title “New Covenant Theology” they have become vulnerable to attack, often by people quite ignorant of what they believe.  The critics simply do not understand that what is now labelled “New Covenant Theology” is actually simply the teaching of the New Testament.  Some Baptists do not realize that by clinging to the coat tails of the men who framed the Westminster Confession of Faith they have been unwittingly pulled from the path of Reformation.

New Covenant theologians simply hold that the Reformation, which was halted or suspended by such men as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, should now be continued.  Semper reformanda!

But what is this teaching that some fear and attack so unnecessarily?  Here are some of the main points.

  1. There is no single over-arching covenant in the Bible (though there is one purpose of grace).  Each covenant God made with men is distinct from the others.  Each has a distinct sign and a specific purpose.
    1. The covenant made with Noah  (Gen. 9:8-17).  This covenant was God’s promise that He would never again flood the earth.  The sign was the rainbow, obviously related to the purpose and context of that particular covenant.
    2. The covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15; 17:10, 11, cf. Acts 7:8).  The promise was that Abraham would inherit the land (Ex. 6:4) and have a multitude of descendants.  The sign was circumcision, obviously related to Abraham having many descendants.
    3. The covenant with Israel ( Ex. 19:5; 24:7, 8; 34:10, 27, 28).  The condition was obedience, the sign was the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13, 16, 17; Ezek. 20:12, 20), which would distinguish Israel from all other nations.
    4. The New Covenant, which was prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34) and proclaimed by Christ (Luke 22:19, 20).  This covenant is made with all who are chosen in Christ and born of His Spirit.  The sign is the cup representing Christ’s shed blood, the blood of the new covenant.  This is the covenant all born again believers, the elect of God, participate in.

It is very important to notice how specifically God’s Word stresses the distinction between the covenants.   The Covenant made at Sinai and the New Covenant are the two major covenants dealt with in Scripture.   They are referred to as the first and second covenant in Hebrews.   In Deuteronomy 5:1-3 Moses states: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.  The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive.”  In Jeremiah 31:31-34 the Lord says “I will make a new covenant… not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt…”  The Lord Jesus Christ announced this new covenant (Luke 22:19, 20; I Cor. 11:25) and the Epistle to the Hebrews makes it crystal clear that the old covenant was passing away.  The New Covenant is better (Heb. 7:22; 8:6).  The first covenant was faulty (Heb. 8:7), and in Hebrews 8:13 we are told that the first covenant was obsolete, growing old, and ready to vanish away.

In order to bolster up this idea of one over-arching covenant, theologians have coined certain phrases which are then imposed on the Scripture.  It is important to remember that these phrases are not found in the Bible; they are theological contructs imposed upon Scripture.  These are such phrases as ‘the covenant of works’ and ‘the covenant of grace.’  Another error is to refer to Genesis 3:15 as a ‘covenant promise.’  Certainly that verse is the first intimation that Christ would conquer Satan, and has been recognized as such down the centuries.  But it is not a promise, it is a prediction.  It was made not to Adam but to Satan.  The context is not covenant but curse.  Covenant is nowhere mentioned in that whole context.  Those who believe in one covenant become so obsessed with the idea that they read it into passages where it is not found at all.  Here is an example from a commentary on Esther.  It speaks of Mordecai’s instruction of Esther.  Commenting on the book of Esther the author writes “[I]t is a story of a teacher of grace who confronted his student with the crown rights of Jehovah and with the covenant of grace to redeem his people… He taught the content of the covenant in the context of covenant love… he reminded her of her identity as a child of the covenant.” [2]  It need hardly be remarked, to those who have read the Book of Esther, that the very word ‘covenant’ does not occur in the book.  In fact even God is not mentioned!

One final comment: the division of the Old Testament Law into civil, ceremonial and moral, has no foundation in Scripture.  This division was first suggested by the medieval Roman Catholic Theologian, Thomas Aquinas, taken up by John Calvin, and has been assumed by successive Bible students ever since.  But it is not a biblical division.  Jewish Rabbis do not accept such an artificial division.   There are moral laws outside the Ten Commandments within the Old Testament, and plenty within the New Testament. More about law some other time.


[1]  Life on Wings: transcript of a series of interviews with Ern Baxter, p. 85.

[2]  Heirs of the Covenant by Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, pp. 218-222.


Have you settled on your lees?

April 1, 2014

Have you settled on your lees?

What a strange question that is!  It employs a figure of speech found in Jeremiah 48:11 and Zephaniah 1:12, and refers to the process of wine making in which the dregs sink to the bottom.  It actually means, “Have you become complacent and indifferent?”

I am using the question in relation to our knowledge of doctrine.  Many Christians get to the stage when they think they have doctrine all sorted out.  They do not need to learn anything more.  They are happy with the position they are in, the doctrines they hold, and see no need to progress further.  In fact some imagine there is no further advance to be made.  Perhaps the majority of Christians are like this.  They are satisfied with their knowledge, their church and their denomination.  But the fact is that there is always “more land to be possessed.”  As one old hymn expresses it, “Have you on the Lord believed?  Still there’s more to follow.”  We are exhorted in Peter’s second epistle to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18).  If we have got to a place where we think we have nothing more to learn we are in a sad and dangerous position.

I was brought up in the Methodist Church, and converted in a Youth for Christ rally at the age of sixteen.  I was reasonably happy in my church and began to train as a Methodist Local preacher.  A year later I attended the baptismal service of a friend in a Brethren Assembly.  After the service, an elder asked me if I had been baptized.  I replied that I had been christened as a baby.  He recommended that I should read through the New Testament and see what it said about baptism.  I did so, and was persuaded of the truth of believer’s baptism, and a year after conversion was baptized in a Baptist Church.  That is just one example of an increase in knowledge and understanding.  Over the years I have gradually learned new truths and, I trust, made progress in knowledge and understanding.

Jump ahead now 55 years.  After training in Bible College, University and Seminary and 42 years in full-time pastoral ministry followed by more than ten years of itinerant ministry since ‘retiring’ from pastoral work, I am still learning.

As a ‘Reformed’ Baptist Minister I had accepted the 1689 Second London Confession of Faith, and along with it, the main tenets of Covenant Theology.  This was not because I had studied the subject in depth, but because this was the accepted position of a reformed minister in the circles in which I moved.  Having a little more time for wider reading, in December 2004 I read “Covenant Theology” by Peter Golding.  This book is based upon his Ph.D. thesis and the author, of course, holds to Covenant Theology.  But a surprise awaited me.  In reading this book by an advocate of Covenant Theology three things struck me which I noted down inside the back cover of the book.

(1)    How late Covenant Theology was in appearing (16th Century).

(2)    What a huge superstructure has been built on so slender a foundation.

(3)    How much Covenant Theologians disagree among themselves.

I mentioned this to a friend, a Baptist Theologian.  He told me that he went to give some lectures in a Presbyterian college in South Africa.  In between lectures in the Staff Room he raised the subject of Covenant Theology with two Presbyterian lecturers.  These two immediately began arguing with each other so my friend left them to it.

Reading Peter Golding’s book stimulated my thinking, causing me to read around the subject and study the Scriptures with this topic in mind.  I suppose I must have been like many Reformed Baptists who consider it “the done thing” to hold to the 1689 Confession without questioning it too much.  The 1689 Confession is, of course, much better than the Westminster Confession, upon which it is based.  So I am so very glad that I began to study the subject more deeply instead of  taking it for granted, for I had another “breakthrough” when I realized that so much of what I had taken for granted was wrong, mistaken or incomplete.  There is so much more one could say about this, but there is not enough time or space to write it.  Suffice it to say that it has been a revelation, and the Old and New Testaments now fit together much better in my mind, and the progress of revelation is much clearer now.  Here are a few of the many, many revelations from the Scriptures.

(1)    Born again Christians are in the New Covenant and not under the Old Covenant (Luke 22:20).

(2)    There is progress in revelation in the Bible; it is not “flat” but progresses to its climax in Christ. (Many Scriptures reveal this, e.g. Ephesians 3; Hebrews 1:1-4; I Peter 1:10-12, etc.).

(3)    Christ has raised the standard of sanctification above the Mosaic Law.  Christ’s Law, as in His teaching and that of His Apostles, is more demanding than the Ten Commandments alone, but New Covenant believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit to enable them to live out Christ’s teaching (e.g. all of Jesus’ teaching, especially Matthew 5-7 and the Epistles).

(4)    The Biblical Covenants are distinct.  There is not one over-arching covenant (which was an invention of Ulrich Zwingli in the 16th century).  In Romans 9:4 the Apostle Paul mentions “the covenants” (plural) and in Galatians 4:24 he writes of “two covenants”.  These are obviously the “old” (Sinaitic) covenant and the new (Christ instituted) covenant. The idea of one over-arching covenant is foreign to the Apostles’ writings.  Each God-given covenant was for a different purpose and had a different sign.  Each sign was appropriate for the respective covenant and pointed to it.  The four main covenants are as follows:

  1. The universal covenant with Noah in which God promised never to flood the earth again.  The sign for this covenant is the rainbow (Genesis 9:8-17).
  2. The covenant with Abraham in which God promised land and a multitude of descendants.  The sign was circumcision (Genesis 15 and 17).
  3. The Covenant with Israel through Moses in which God promised national prosperity on the condition of obedience to His laws.  The sign of the Mosaic Covenant was the Sabbath (Exodus 31:13-18; Ezekiel 20:12, 20).
  4. The New Covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Christ through His atoning sacrifice, which is open to all who repent and believe on Christ, having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  This gives eternal life and God’s laws are written on the heart of believers.  The sign of this covenant is the cup in communion representing Christ’s shed blood (Luke 22:20; I Cor. 11:25).

(5)    One of the often unrecognized snares of Covenant Theology is that its advocates impose theological constructs on Scripture and seek to make Scripture fit these presuppositions.  For example, “the covenant of grace”, “the covenant of works”, “the moral law”, and so on.  These phrases may be useful and convenient.  But it all depends what one means by them.  As they are not biblical phrases it depends on the content assumed to be in them.  We must allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves and not twist them to fit our theories.

(6)    The traditional division of the Old Covenant Laws into civil, ceremonial and moral, has no biblical foundation.  Apparently this division was first devised by the medieval Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.  It was taken up by John Calvin and has become a tradition, though not a sound and biblical one.

(7)    The Reformers were great men, or at least God made them great, but they were not infallible and they often made mistakes.  In parting with Rome they carried a lot of baggage with them, including infant baptism and the idea of a sacral society (union of church and state).  In fact it was adherence to the sacral society principle and fears of what might happen to the Reformation if they rejected the church/state link that caused Ulrich Zwingli to withdraw from accepting believer’s Baptism to which he was initially attracted.  And it was Zwingli who invented Covenant Theology to provide support for his clinging to infant baptism.

New Covenant Theology is not new, though the title is fairly recent.  Its basic truths are firmly rooted in the New Testament and have been held by various individuals and groups down the centuries.

These points merely touch the surface.  To learn more see the following from the growing body of literature on the biblical doctrine of New Covenant Theology.

What is New Covenant Theology?  An Introduction: by A. Blake White. 60 pages.

The New Covenant and New Covenant Theology: by Fred. G. Zaspel. 61 pages.

Christ: Lord and Lawgiver over the Church: by John G. Reisinger. 20 pages.

New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense: by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel.  Foreword by Douglas Moo.  Commended by D. A. Carson and Tom J. Nettles.  324 pages.