From the pen of Pascal Denault:
Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one. Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3.19-24)
The goal of the covenant made with the physical posterity of Abraham (i.e. the Old Covenant or the law) was not futile since it consisted in leading to Christ. This end was accomplished in at least three ways, according to the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists: 1) by preserving both the messianic lineage and the covenant of grace; 2) by pointing typologically towards Christ; 3) by imprisoning everything under sin in order that the only means to obtain the promised inheritance was through faith in Christ.
(1) God promised that the accomplishment of his promise, by which all nations would be blessed, would fulfil (sic) itself by his posterity, that is, Christ (Gal. 3.16). Consequently, the Abrahamic lineage until the Messiah had to be preserved by a covenant with the natural posterity of Abraham (Rom. 9.4-5). In accordance with Romans 9.5, John Spilsbury declares that Israel’s privilege was to bring the promised Messiah and not to be in the Covenant of Grace. The point of the genealogical succession of Abraham was not to establish a perpetual principle in order to include the natural posterity of all the natural members of a covenant, but only to lead to his ultimate posterity who was, according to this interpretation his only posterity. Fred Malone writes: “However, the genealogical element of the historical Old Testament covenants was necessary only to bring forth the physical seed of Abraham to whom the promises were made, Jesus Christ.” Once the end was met, the way leading to it had to end. Alan Conner writes:
“The genealogical principle of the Abrahamic Covenant has been brought to its climatic fruition. There is no longer any reason to continue in it as a covenant principle since “the Seed” has come into the world. Christ is the last physical seed in Abraham’s covenant line to whom the promises were made. There is no other physical seed beyond Christ to whom these promises are directed.”
…On what basis can one maintain a genealogical succession once the Old Covenant was over? John Owen writes:
“That this separation and privilege [namely, the setting apart of Israel and its preservation by means of a covenant] was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed?”
…(2) The Old Covenant led to Christ by pointing typologically towards Him. The paedobaptists just like the Baptists were conscious that the earthly blessings offered by the Old Covenant (the deliverance from Egypt, Canaan and the tabernacles, etc.) were all types of spiritual blessings of the New Covenant. Herman Witsius writes: “But we are to observe, that these external promises were types of spiritual and heavenly things.” However, the Presbyterians and the Baptists did not see this typology in the same covenant, while for the latter, the type and reality constituted two separate covenants. This brings us back to the two paradigms regarding the Covenant of Grace and their relationship with the Old and New Covenants. The Old Covenant pointed toward Christ and to the realization of the promises made under the New Covenant.
(3) The third way the Old Covenant led to Christ was by its condemning of sin. This point is particularly brought to fore by the apostle in Galatians 3:
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
…Presbyterian federalism was a bit perplexed by such affirmations. To be sure, Presbyterianism saw the Old Covenant as a Covenant of Grace. This conception was difficult to conciliate with the idea that the goal of the Covenant of Law was to shed light on sin and condemn it. Inversely, Presbyterians could have objected that if the Old Covenant was really conditional, it would have been incompatible with God’s promises to Abraham and the free giving of His grace. Is this not the objection that Paul wishes to respond when he writes: “Is the Law, therefore, opposed to the promsises of God” (Gal. 3.21)? According to the apostle, the Law had to lead to Christ in leaving the sinner with no other refuge but the grace of God through faith.
…This third way of leading to Christ corresponded to the understanding the Baptists had of the nature of the Old Covenant. They saw it as a covenant of works, that is, a covenant whose blessings or curses were determined by the obedience or the disobedience of its members.
…We saw that many Presbyterians viewed the Mosaic Covenant as being unconditional. However, certain paedobaptists, as well as all the Baptists, did not share this point of view since they saw the Old Covenant as a Covenant of Works (i.e., a conditional covenant). In this section, we will examine the relationship between the Old Covenant and the Covenant of Works given to Adam.
The Covenant of Works concluded at creation required man’s perfect obedience. The blessing of this covenant depended entirely on the works or obedience of Adam. It provided no mercy or expiation in case of disobedience, but only death. This was not the case with the Old Covenant. The Scriptures present this covenant as being a covenant of redemption; the Old Covenant was based on a priesthood (Heb. 7.11). In a certain way, it was planned that the people would sin and that it would subsist nonetheless thanks to the Levitical system of sacrifices. John Ball relies on the fact that the Old Covenant planned for the forgiveness of sins, something the Covenant of Works could never have done, to prove that it was not a covenant of works, but of grace
…Samuel Petto, who did consider the Mosaic Covenant as being conditional, recognized that it could not be strictly the same Covenant of Works established at creation:
“The covenant of works with the first Adam being violated, it was at an end as to the promising part; it promised nothing; after once it was broken, it remained in force only as to its threatening part, it menaced death to all the sinful seed of Adam, but admitted no other into it who were without sin, either to perform the righteousness of it, or to answer the penalty; it had nothing to do with an innocent person, after broken, for it was never renewed with man again, as before.”
Nothing, under the Covenant of Works, provided for the reparation of sin through the substitution of a righteous person. In this way, the Old Covenant was very different from the Covenant of Works. Nevertheless, under the Old Covenant, there was a principle belonging to the covenant made with Adam: “Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them” (Lev. 18.5).
How did the Particular Baptists, and certain paedobaptists along with them, conceive the nature of the Old Covenant if it was not the Covenant of Works, while being a covenant of works? What was the relationship between the Covenant of Works given to Adam and the Old Covenant made with Israel? Benjamin Keach affirms that there was, between the two of them, continuity but not uniformity:
“True, there was another Edition or Administration of it [i.e., the covenant of works] given to Israel. which tho’ it was a covenant of works, i.e. Do this and live, yet it was not given by the Lord to the same End and Design, as the Covenant was given to our first parents, viz. It was not given to justifie them, or to give them eternal Life.”
A few years later, Keach published a collection of sermons on the covenant of grace in which he reiterated that the covenant of works was reaffirmed by the Old Covenant, but to a different end than at the time of its initial proclamation:
“Though evident it is that God afterwards more clearly and formally repeated this Law of Works to the People of Israel …though not given in that Ministration of it for Life, as before it was to Adam; yet as so given, it is by St. Paul frequently called the Old Covenant, and the Covenant of Works, which required perfect Obedience of all that were under it.”
This specification constituted an essential characteristic of Baptist federalism, specifically that the Covenant of Works, after the fall, was never again used for the descendents of Adam as “a law […] that could impart life” (Gal. 3.21). This does not mean that the Covenant of Works had no further use, nor that it was absent from the covenants that God established with his people. On the contrary, it was reaffirmed, but in a new way; it was placed at the core of a covenant of redemption and was employed to different ends. According to this conception then, the Old Covenant was not exactly the equivalent of the covenant of works although it reaffirmed it. In agreement with the Covenant of Works, the Old Covenant demanded a perfect obedience to the law of God, but contrary to the Covenant of Works, the Old Covenant was based on a sacrificial system for the redemption of sinners. The Covenant of Works reaffirmed in the Old Covenant made this sacrificial system absolutely necessary since all sinners transgressed the law. However, the sacrifices of the Old Covenant could not accomplish the righteousness of the law effectively; that is why they only had a typological and temporary value. As long as they were offered, these sacrifices recalled that the requirements of the law were not satisfied, since sin still subsisted, and that this law weighed on the members of the Old Covenant like a curse (cf. Heb. 10.1-14). It is under this law that Christ was born (Gal. 4.4) and it is this same law (i.e. the Covenant of Works reaffirmed in the Old Covenant) that Christ fulfilled by his obedience (Rom. 5.19-20) and it is the curse of this law which he endured by his death (Gal. 3.13). Christ, therefore, accomplished the Old Covenant perfectly.*
I highly recommend that you purchase Pascal Denault’s book for more information on Reformed Baptist covenant theology and our differences with Reformed paedobaptist covenant theology. You can purchase the book at Solid Ground Christian Books.
* Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), p. 130-139