Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 3

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing with part 3 of our review of Jeffrey’s Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we come to chs. 7-11 where Johnson carries on with what he calls his “direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Our focus here is on his arguments devoted to the problems of conditions and covenant breakers (i.e., apostates) in paedobaptist covenant theology (chs. 7-9) and to the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant (chs. 10-11).

As Johnson discusses in chs. 7-9 paedobaptist attempts to solve the problems posed by integrating conditions and apostates in the covenant of grace, his aim is to put a challenge to paedobaptists as follows: they should just admit that their every attempt to integrate conditions and apostasy into the covenant of grace (as they conceive it) destroys the grace of that covenant. Any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace needed to bring all its members in and keep them in, else membership in it is meaningless. With that challenge to paedobaptist covenant theology in mind, Johnson takes up the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant. He tells us in ch. 10 that the deficiencies of the old covenant at fulfilling God’s promises were evident in that the bulk of its heirs were merely carnal, its blessings merely this-earthly, and its duration merely temporary. Having presented in ch. 10 what God’s purpose for the old covenant was not, Johnson explains in ch. 11 what His purpose was. That purpose was fourfold: 1) to expose the guilt and inability of sinners; 2) to point sinners to Christ; 3) to foster the nation’s political, moral, and genealogical security and purity; and 4) to reassert the standard to be satisfied for the ungodly to be justified (true heirs of Abraham).

In response to Johnson’s arguments in these chapters, let’s take the content of chs. 10-11 first. His treatment of God’s purpose in giving the old covenant is useful, especially in ch. 11. Even so, his primary interest is to show that, because God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises, it cannot be a covenant of grace. This conclusion does not follow, however. We can agree that God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises in their full and final form. We can agree that the old covenant was not intended to produce the true Heir of God’s promises: that Heir would not come through the old covenant tribe and order of Levi, but through Judah’s tribe and Melchizedek’s order. We can agree the old covenant was not intended to produce the true heirs of God’s promises: those heirs would look beyond Sinai and follow in the footsteps of father Abraham’s faith to find a righteousness better than their own and an inheritance better than Canaan. We cannot agree, however, that God’s purpose did not fulfill His promises in a temporary and physical form that instructed and built up the remnant in faith in the eternal and spiritual form available through the Surety to come. In other words, God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was to fulfill His promises in shadow and type, their deficiencies notwithstanding. For that reason, we can affirm that the justification of believers under the old and new covenants was one and the same, and that the old covenant was a covenant of grace sufficient and efficacious, through the Spirit’s work, to administer God’s eternal and spiritual promises to the remnant.

Turning back to chs. 7-9, is Johnson correct to say that paedobaptists should admit that their attempts to integrate conditions and apostates into the covenant of grace (as paedobaptists conceive it) destroy the grace of that covenant? As I see it, Johnson’s analysis is incorrect, and for reasons that he himself discusses. Focusing first on the issue of conditions, conditions are compatible with the grace of the covenant of grace because, but only because, both envision the true Heir of Abraham, the Surety of the covenant. Under both the old and the new covenants, it is the Surety’s obedience to the law’s conditions that guarantees justification for those of Abraham’s faith. Moreover, true believers in that Surety are not under the law as a covenant of works by which they are justified or condemned. In other words, the law is for believers a rule of life—the law (yoke) of liberty—training them in the holy character and conduct that are inseparable from justification as the fruits and evidences of justifying faith. In sum, then, because the Surety of the covenant of grace satisfies the law’s conditions and thus secures justification for believers in Him, conditions do not destroy the grace of the covenant.

Well, is Johnson correct to argue that any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace of justification and perseverance for all its participants, else participation in it is meaningless? Again, in my opinion, Johnson is incorrect. For him, what counts as a covenant of grace is only that which ensures the salvation of all its participants. We have to ask, however, from where does he get this definition? Not unexpectedly, time and again, Johnson appeals to Jer 31.31-34 (Heb 8.8-12). That text is certainly relevant to a discussion of the new covenant, but Jeremiah’s focus is on the promises of the new covenant. Elsewhere, the threats of the new covenant come into view. For example, in Rev 2-3, Christ addresses His church(es) with threats of judgment for apostasy as well as promises of salvation for perseverance. In Matt 7.21-23, He declares His intent on judgment day to disavow disciples of His who confessed His name as Lord but despised His law. In Rom 11.17-22 (cf. John 15.1-8), Christ’s apostle warns the church that all unnatural Gentile member-branches who fail to persevere will be broken off from Abraham’s covenant family tree, just as all natural Israelite member-branches who failed to persevere were broken off. In all this, the point is not, as Johnson alleges, that apostates, as portrayed by paedobaptists, cause Christ to suffer reproach as a poor federal head. Instead, the point is that, according to the new covenant, Christ is Judge of apostates as well as Head of the elect in His church. Yes, by their defection, apostates do bring reproach on Christ’s name. They will not, however, have the last word. Rather, in keeping with the retributive principle of the covenant, Christ will bring reproach, in final measure, on their names. Nor is the point, as Johnson claims, that the covenant itself, as conceived by paedobaptists, is faulty. Instead, the point is that the covenant of grace is not to be reduced to its proper purpose of grace, nor are the people gathered under Christ’s lordship to be reduced, before judgment day, to the elect given to Him by oath. Yes, salvation is the new covenant’s proper purpose. Before judgment day, however, the new covenant, like all other administrations of the covenant of grace, does not ensure the salvation of all in the covenant community. (That distinctive applies to the eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son.) The new covenant does, however, gather a community under Christ’s lordship for discipleship according to His promises of salvation and His warnings of judgment. In the experience of the historical, visible church, His promises are not always embraced; His warnings are not always heeded. Despite the faith some confess at the beginning, and despite the blessings they have in common with the remnant in the meantime, they prove in the end to have an evil, unbelieving heart and fail to persevere in faith (Luke 8.13; 1 Tim 1.19-20; 4.1; 1 John 2.19). So, even though the new covenant does not guarantee the salvation of all in the covenant community, it does afford them all the blessings of discipleship under Christ.

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 2

Posted by R. Fowler White

In part 1 of our series of posts reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we covered his introductory survey and the two subsequent chapters on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and on the analogy between circumcision and baptism. In this post—part 2—we’ll cover chs. 3-6, in which Johnson begins to present, in deliberately crafted increments, his exposé of the fundamental flaw of paedobaptist covenant theology. The four chapters of our present focus are devoted respectively to the continuity between the old and new covenants and to the nature of the old covenant.

Chapters 3-4 set the course for chs. 5-6 (and, in fact, the rest of part one of Johnson’s book). So, in chs. 3-4, we find Johnson intent on showing that the legitimacy of infant baptism hangs especially on the continuity between the old and new covenants: that is, it hangs on the belief that the covenants and the communities formed under those covenants remain essentially the same. Johnson identifies the principles that governed membership under the old covenant as 1) racial distinction, 2) national affiliation, 3) racial perpetuity, and 4) the federal headship of parents—all signified by circumcision. Throughout his discussion, however, Johnson emphasizes that something even more fundamental than those principles is at work: the old covenant did not secure (guarantee) a saving relationship with God to anyone participating under its terms (p. 63; cf. pp. 63-64). In that emphasis we get our most explicit clue into what Johnson believes is the trait that distinguishes the old covenant from a covenant of grace (i.e., that differentiates it from an administration of the covenant of grace). Any covenant that does not guarantee salvation for all its members is no covenant of grace. With that trait in mind, Johnson goes on in chs. 5-6 to offer observations to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of [based on] works and not of grace. In ch. 5 he lays out four such points: the old covenant 1) made its promised blessings contingent on Israel’s obedience; 2) threatened Israel with curses for their disobedience; 3) was breakable and broken by Israel; and 4) is described in Scripture with terms that identify it as a covenant of works (e.g., law, commandments, ministry of death). To close out his argument in ch. 5, Johnson anticipates the objection that, if the old covenant made its promises contingent on Israel’s obedience, then their identity as God’s elect people must also have been contingent on their obedience. Johnson answers the objection by urging that election applies only to a remnant within the nation, and the ground of the remnant’s election was according to grace. Capping off his contention that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not grace, Johnson devotes ch. 6 to a consideration of Gal 4.21-31. In that passage he finds what he calls a ‘singular refutation’ of the paedobaptist claim that the old and new covenants were each covenants of grace (i.e., were essentially the same covenant). No, says Johnson, in Gal 4 Paul denies the continuity between the old and new covenants and thus denies the continuity of the communities formed under them.

What can we say about Johnson’s arguments in chs. 3-6? First, with regard to chs. 3-4, Johnson’s point that covenant continuity is foundational for infant baptism is certainly relevant. Even so, Johnson’s agenda is driven fundamentally by the fact that the old covenant did not secure salvation for all its participants and so is no covenant of grace. In response, we have to observe that no covenant before the new covenant (as Johnson defines it) guaranteed salvation for all its participants, and no covenant community before the new covenant was coextensive with the elect in Christ. Hence, on Johnson’s terms, no covenant before the new covenant qualified as a covenant of grace. Observations such as these highlight a key question for us to answer: when, if ever, are we to reduce divine covenant to an administration of election in Christ and guarantees of salvation? More specifically, are we to identify the new covenant (i.e., the new covenant administration of the covenant of grace) with God’s eternal purpose in Christ (i.e., the covenant of redemption), or are we to distinguish the two? Once more: are we to identify the new covenant community with the elect in Christ or to distinguish the two? Briefly, in my view, the argument of Heb 7.20-22, 28; 8.6 is decisively in favor of distinguishing the two. Since the new covenant has been enacted on the oath-promises of the Father to the Son—since the oath is the basis of the new covenant, we must distinguish the one from the other. In addition, we must also distinguish the people given to the Son by oath (Ps 110.3; Isa 53.10; John 6.37, 39) from the community formed under the new covenant. Thus, the new covenant is not reducible to an administration of salvation to the elect; the new covenant is also an administration of judgment to the reprobate. In other words, Christ, as Lord of the new covenant church, is both its Savior and its Judge. We’ll have occasion to come back to this topic, but for now it looks to me that in all preconsummate historical covenants (i.e., administrations of the covenant of grace), covenant is broader than individual election according to grace.

Second, respecting chs. 5-6, Johnson’s attempt to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not of grace fails to convince. It does so because he omits from consideration the role of God’s designated sureties of grace in the election of both the nation and the remnant under the old covenant. To God’s designation of sureties, even those born under the old covenant, Scripture gives careful attention, as when God gave certain of His servants as sureties in the promises, prophecies, ordinances, and other types (“shadows”) of the old covenant, especially those related to the messianic-mediatorial offices. This is not to say that the pre-Christ designees were sufficient and efficacious to prevent the nation’s loss of election and temporal blessing for its disobedience, much less to secure the nation’s election to eternal blessing with their exemplary obedience. To the contrary, their failings made the nation’s election revocable. The remnant’s election to eternal blessing was a different matter, however. It was irrevocable because of the perfections of the Surety to come. In fact, God’s designation of sureties under the old covenant was sufficient and efficacious, through the work of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the remnant in faith in the promised Surety. Thus, Johnson is mistaken not to recognize that by setting forth the promised Surety in shadow and type, the old covenant was a covenant of grace. This is not to deny that the old covenant spoke of conditions, curses, and covenant-breakers. Nor is it to deny the discontinuity between the old and new covenants. It is to say that the folly of the Galatian churches (Gal 3.1) was to consider the works of the law apart from God’s promises of a Surety. In doing so they would have to regard their own works as adequate to qualify them (or their children) as true heirs of Abraham, as adequate to secure their justification and eternal salvation. In doing so members of the Galatian churches would fail to listen to the law, would break its conditions, and would subject themselves to God’s curse, all because they had severed themselves from the Surety God had promised.