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.

5 Comments

  1. Reed Here said,

    October 27, 2019 at 8:27 am

    Exactly where I need to be thinking right now. Thx

  2. Ron said,

    November 2, 2019 at 7:14 am

    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.

    Just to clarify, the CoG was established only with Christ as the second Adam (the single seed to whom the promise was made) and by extension it’s established with the elect who’d be found in him. It’s not established with the non elect. Whereas the outward administration of the covenant is another matter altogether. By OT precept households of professing believers have an “interest in the covenant” (i.e. are to be regarded as God’s heritage) and, therefore, must receive the mark of inclusion, now baptism, even though not all might be children of promise.

  3. rfowlerwhite said,

    November 4, 2019 at 9:23 am

    Ron, yes. I’m tracking with you. I think you have in mind WLC Question 31: With whom was the covenant of grace made? Answer: The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed. I take it that WLC 31 is focused on the proper purpose of the CoG. It is interesting to set WLC 31 alongside WCF 7.3: Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

  4. Ron said,

    November 7, 2019 at 5:02 pm

    I don’t see WCF and WLC as representing incompatible views. I think we should allow them to happily comply. The two can be reconciled by considering that the offer of salvation as depicted in 7.3 does not undermine that the covenant is established only with elect sinners in Christ. WCF 7.3 goes on to speak of the promise being fulfilled in the elect, which also comports with WLC 31.

  5. rfowlerwhite said,

    November 8, 2019 at 8:18 am

    I agree that they are compatible and complementary. I did not intend to imply otherwise with my wording in #3, but I can see why it did. My bad.

    As you have probably seen, WCF 7.3 and WLC 31 are grouped together with WSC 20 in various harmonies of the Westminster Standards. C. Hodge has a helpful discussion of the agreement of these three statements, as you likely know.


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