Thursday, 5 January 2012

Covenant Theology at the Carey

'New Covenant Ministry' was the theme of the Carey Conference which finished today with Sam Waldron the main speaker. Speaking from Jeremiah 31:31-34 he took the subject in three parts: 'The Necessity of the Law in the New Covenant', 'The Centrality of Grace' and the 'Universality of the Spirit'.

He introduced the first paper by insisting that the New Covenant is the 'constitution of the church'. He then identified the law which is written on the heart as the Decalogue; that 'on the heart' means that God installs his law as the ruling power of our thoughts and affections; and the reason he does this is because it is his purpose to have a law abiding, holy people. He concluded by affirming the classic three uses of the law and the threefold division of the law. Nor, he added, does the in-writing of the law mean we do not need an objective written Word. Conversion is accompanied by a heartfelt delight in God's law.

The second paper focussed on the sovereign determination of grace; the unbreakable character of the new covenant - the old covenant was broken (Heb 8:6-8); and its mediatorial guarantee - Christ the surety of a better covenant. We were exhorted to preach grace and rejoice in Calvinistic distinctives given the deficiencies of Arminianism.

Thirdly (in 'The universality of the Spirit'), Sam Waldron looked at the dissimilarity of the new covenant - we must take the 'not like' of Jeremiah 31 seriously. He looked at the precise superiority of the new covenant. Was it quantitative as some paedobaptists teach? Rather, it is in the fact that all the members of the covenant will infallibly be saved. They will have the law written on their heart, they will all know the Lord and the will be forgiven. (Greg Nichols - see below - calls these the moral, experiential and legal aspects to the new covenant) and this covenant cannot be broken. The distinction is not to be found in personal spiritual experience, but in the fact that this covenant is spiritual and unbreakable; its newness is to be seen in its corporate perfection more than in any difference between the spiritual experience of saints in the different dispensations.

Finally its ultimate fulfilment is in the new creation but it is inaugurated in the church.

The nature of the new covenant means that
1. We must insist on the importance of a regenerate church membership ( so far as humanly possible).
2. We must insist on the biblical necessity of believers' baptism as the rite of initiation. The new covenant is not a physical covenant and the rite of admission must reflect that.
3. The fatal flaw of paedobaptists is to argue for the similarity of the covenants and not see sufficiently the differences (and paedobaptists differ as to whether children are presumptively regenerate or not regenerate at all).
4. The new covenant is consummated in the new creation.
5. Remember the glory and blessing of church membership - an authentic and genuine church membership is an anticipation of the heavenly state, of the heavenly Jerusalem. Our model for church is not looking back to the mixed multitude of Israel, but looking forward to the pure church of the eschaton,the new Jerusalem.

Martin Slater of Bedford also gave a clear and helpful summary of covenant theology from a Baptist perspective. Bill James looked at the place of children in a Baptist fellowship. On different themes, John Benton gave a helpful survey of present culture under the headings of demography, psychology and theology; Lewis Allen told us about the Lord's blessing on his church plant in Huddersfield; and Matthias Lohmann of Munich gave a biographical sketch of Johann Oncken, a German Baptist pioneer. There was also an unusually helpful Q&A session.

I mentioned above Greg Nichols, whose book 'Covenant Theology, a Reformed and Baptistic Perspective' (Solid Ground, 2011) I have just finished reading. It was interesting to interweave what he says with what I heard at the conference. Nichols is very helpful, insisting that the superiority of the new covenant is that its promises are unconditional, guaranteed and spiritual - coming to much the same conclusion as Waldron, from a slightly different angle. 'The covenant of grace views [partakers of the covenant] as individuals to whom God applies redemption with the gospel. The new covenant views them as an organised community formed by Jesus in history'. I am not sure if it is necessary to individualise the covenant of grace in that way, but it is significant again to see the collective, corporate, nature of the new covenant emphasised. Nicholls too is quite clear that the Decalogue is written on the heart of the believer in the new covenant.

I came away from this conference encouraged as a Calvinist; as a Baptist; and as a 1689 Baptist - it did seem as if the Carey was trying to pin its colours to the mast on the new covenant theology issue. After the Q&A session the chairman said that he could hear the nails in the coffin of NCT; I am not so sure,as error is tenacious but for whatever reason, its voice was not heard above a squeak at this conference. Erroll Hulse insisted that we are not going to accept any tinkering with the 1689 (meaning presumably no asserting an ambivalent position on the law, as the 1644 Confession is supposed to do).

Above all I came home glad to be a Christian with such wonderful covenant blessings assured me through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.


  1. NCT has a seminary dedicated to it now!

    It is not going out of fashion yet.

  2. Thanks Jonathan - which college is that?

  3. Hi Mostyn, always enjoy reading your blog! Hope you are well.
    When the point 'everyone in the new covenant will infallibly be saved' was made was there any engagement with texts like Heb 6:4-8 or Heb 10:26-29 and if so how were they understood?
    I ask because it was those texts that led me to embrace a paedo-baptist position. It was because I understood these texts to mean there would be people in the new covenant who could/would fall away that helped convince me to reject the baptist position.
    And on a second question: Is it necessary to believe in the infallibility of the new covenant in order to uphold the baptist position?
    Thanks for any insight you can share.
    Your servant, Matthew Jolley

  4. Matthew,

    Many thanks for the comment; it is always encouraging to know someone reads the blogs!

    My understanding of the Hebrews passages would be (and until a few years ago would have been unchallenged), that the people referred to as falling away are apostates and in no way in a covenantal relationship with the Lord. That is still my view and I guess would be the view of most Baptists. Sam Waldron did not refer to these passages, and Greg Nichols in the book I referred to takes this view I believe on the basis that some hypocrites will always get into the covenant number of the visible church.

    I say 'until a few year ago' because then I came across for the first time the view of some Presbyterians who say that such people who fall away are also in some covenantal relationship with the Lord - a physical or external aspect of the new covenant, or in some other way implying that there is some breakable aspect to the new covenant. I have to say I was amazed to read this, and still am not persuaded by it. The former interpretation is still very much mine.

    In grace (and I am glad to know you are up and well after your long illness - one of our members was with you over Christmas I believe for a service),