Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 5 (Section 2)

In this final installment of our review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we take up the book’s second division, consisting of eight brief essays devoted to a systematic presentation of the relationships between the Abrahamic, old, Davidic, and new covenants. (For good measure, Johnson also offers an appendix on how the law of Moses relates to the law of Christ. “In short,” he concludes, “the Law of Christ is nothing less than the Law of Moses fulfilled in the life of Christ” [p. 253].) Overall, his stated goal in the second section is “to explain the continuity and discontinuity of the old and new covenants by revealing the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant” (p. 207, emphasis original). That dichotomy (i.e., “dual nature”) refers to the two distinct dimensions (i.e., “sides”) of God’s one covenant with Abraham: the natural-earthly-conditional side and the spiritual-heavenly-unconditional side. For Johnson, this dualism is the key to understanding the continuity and discontinuity of God’s covenants. Let’s summarize his main points.

As for Abraham, God pledged to give the patriarch seed and land (among other things), and He fulfills those promises in two forms. There was a provisional fulfillment in the form of a natural seed and an earthly land. These were shadows and types of the permanent fulfillment to come in the form of a spiritual seed and a heavenly land. Significantly, the fulfillments differed as to their basis. The provisional fulfillment for Abraham’s natural seed was conditioned on their faithfulness to God; the permanent fulfillment for Abraham and his spiritual seed was not conditioned on their faithfulness to God, but on God’s faithfulness to them. In light of these factors, says Johnson, God’s covenant with Abraham had a dual nature: it was both conditional and unconditional.

So, how does the Abrahamic covenant relate to the old and new covenants? The old and new covenants are the two sides of the Abrahamic covenant enacted consecutively in two separate covenants. Specifically, the old covenant was an extension of the conditional side of God’s covenant with Abraham, elaborating the works God required to fulfill His promises. The new covenant, on the other hand, is an extension of the unconditional side of God’s covenant with Abraham, elaborating the grace God provides to fulfill His promises. Going on to relate the old covenant to the new covenant, Johnson argues that the old covenant was the conditional covenant of works that had to be satisfied so that the new unconditional covenant of grace might be fulfilled. In light of all this, Johnson says, we understand better how the Abrahamic and old covenants relate to Christ. That is, the conditional side of the Abrahamic covenant, and its extension in the old covenant, were a covenant of works that Christ had to satisfy in order to become the mediator of the unconditional side of the Abrahamic covenant, namely, the new covenant of grace. Thus, the dichotomous Abrahamic covenant, the conditional old covenant, and the unconditional new covenant are all fulfilled because of Christ’s faithfulness.

For the sake of completeness, Johnson also has us ask how the Abrahamic covenant related to the Davidic covenant. Johnson’s answer: the Davidic covenant had the same dual nature as the Abrahamic. God promised David seed and throne, and He fulfills those promises in two forms. There was a provisional form of a natural seed and an earthly throne, the fulfillment of which was conditioned on the faithfulness of David’s natural seed to God. That form foreshadowed the future permanent form of a miraculous seed and a heavenly throne, the fulfillment of which was conditioned on God’s faithfulness to David and that miraculous seed. In this way, Johnson urges us to see that the conditional side of the Davidic covenant, elaborated in the old covenant, was a covenant of works that Christ had to satisfy in order to ascend the heavenly throne and fulfill the new covenant of grace, which is the unconditional side of the Davidic covenant.

In response to Section 2 of Johnson’s book, three (more or less) quick observations. First, it’s hard not to read these essays without wondering if they should have appeared much earlier in the book so that the reader could see better the whole picture into which Johnson fits the pieces of his argumentation. Second, Johnson needs to explain more thoroughly how the historical covenants are an outworking of the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son. For many, that exercise helps to clarify how individual election is a narrower circle within the broader circle of the covenant community polity that has been in effect from the beginning. Third and last, there is profit in Johnson’s comments on the dual nature of God’s covenant with Abraham when he says that to fulfill His promises, the old covenant elaborates the works God requires, while the new covenant elaborates the grace He provides. Johnson is mistaken, however, when he posits that the two sides of the Abrahamic covenant were enacted separately and consecutively in, respectively, the old covenant of works and the new covenant of grace. Rather, they are both administrations of the two sides of the one dichotomous covenant of grace. Yes, we can agree that the old covenant was continuous with the covenant of works (with Adam) in that it effectively (and no doubt more elaborately) republished the demands and sanctions of the first covenant of works. The old covenant, however, was not merely continuous with that covenant of works; it was not merely a reissuance or a republication of that covenant. It was also discontinuous with that covenant in a key way that points to a crucial flaw in Johnson’s thesis: it was discontinuous in that it also republished the promises of the Surety who would satisfy the covenant of works. Significantly, those promises, introduced only after the fall (Gen 3.15), were themselves formalized and elaborated in subsequent administrations of the one covenant of grace, not least in the various prophecies, shadows, and types of the old covenant. In the old covenant, then, along with the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the new covenants, God has consistently discipled His people, teaching them both about the works He requires and about the grace He provides in the Surety. That being the case, old covenant discipleship was covenant-of-grace discipleship, instructing and building up the elect in their faith in Christ, so that the salvation received under the old covenant was the same in all respects as that received under the new covenant.

Posted by R. Fowler White

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 4 (Chs. 12-16)

We turn now to part 4 of our review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw (2010), looking at chs. 12-16. Together these chapters conclude the first division of Johnson’s treatment of the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted. (He’ll devote the second division to what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism.” In it he’ll discuss the relationships between the Abrahamic, old, Davidic, and new covenants.) The focus here is on a) four key differences between the old and new covenants, b) the nature of the new covenant, c) the meaning of circumcision, and d) the error of integrating the flesh and the spirit. From this brief summary, the reader will sense some intentional repetition in Johnson’s presentation, as he collates and, to a degree, sharpens his lines of argument.

In chs. 12-13 Johnson reminds us that the old and new covenants differ as to their participants, substance, duration, and efficacy. First, he insists once more that the new covenant guarantees the salvation of all its participants, whereas the old covenant did not (as OT history shows). In response, we emphasize once again that his claim is predicated on the false premise that, even before judgment day, the new covenant is meant to separate the elect from the reprobate and to define the community formed under it as coextensive with individual election. Historical covenant and individual election, however, are not coextensive. Second, Johnson moves on to represent paedobaptists as mixing old covenant shadows with new covenant realities by connecting infant circumcision with baptism. No, it isn’t old covenant shadows to which we cling; instead we cling to the creation ordinances of family and parental authority that have been constitutive of covenant polity from the beginning. Third, despite Johnson’s odd claim to the contrary (p. 158), paedobaptists don’t deny that the old covenant is obsolete (cf. Heb 8.13). What we deny is that the covenants’ difference in duration annuls their sameness in substance: both covenants set forth the gospel of the promised Surety, the old in types, the new in antitypes. Fourth, Johnson repeats his claim that, unlike the old covenant, the new covenant is effectual for justifying, regenerating, and sanctifying all who are brought into its membership. We can agree that the two covenants differ in power, but Johnson’s claim about all new covenant members does not follow unless he can show 1) that the new covenant is only an administration of salvation to the elect, and 2) that the people brought into its membership, before judgment day, are only the elect in Christ. This he has not done.

Moving on to ch. 14, Johnson again discusses the nature of the new covenant, restating his position that the old covenant principles of parental headship, theocracy, racial distinctiveness, and racial perpetuity don’t apply in the new covenant. Though we agree that certain old covenant principles that preserved Christ’s lineage have ended, we cannot agree with Johnson’s assertions, quoting Jer 31.29-30, that “under the Mosaic Covenant children were not viewed independently” of their parents’ headship and that parents’ headship over their children “would be completely eradicated” under the new covenant (pp. 175-76). Both assertions are demonstrably false. On the one hand, under the old covenant, children were in fact “viewed independently” of their parents’ headship (Jer 31.30 echoes Deut 24.16). On the other hand, under the new covenant, it’s not that parental headship ends; rather it’s that, as people confess that each person suffers for his own sins, they stop complaining that “innocent children” (present generations) suffer unjustly for the sins of their “fathers” (past generations). Far from being eradicated under Christ’s new covenant lordship, parental headship continues to be constitutive of covenant polity.

In ch. 15, Johnson revisits the topic of circumcision, this time to debunk the paedobaptist teaching that circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace for all of Abraham’s biological seed just as it was for Abraham. Johnson contends that, according to Rom 4.11, circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace only for Abraham and for those who shared his faith, but it was a sign of the (old) covenant of works for those who received circumcision without or before faith. Here again, Johnson begs the question of what counts as a covenant of grace, presuming that the covenant of grace is only an administration of guaranteed blessing and thus that circumcision is only an index of faith. This construct, however, misses the two sides of circumcision in the context of the two-sided covenant of grace. As we’ve been saying, the covenant of grace is not just a guarantee of blessing, but is an administration of both curse (Gen 12.3b; 17.14) and blessing (Gen 12.2-3; 17.4-8). Within that context, circumcision presented both sanctions to sinners. To be sure, circumcision signified the blessing of justification (Rom 4.11) to sinners who by faith (Gen 15.6) found righteousness in the covenant’s Surety, Abraham’s true Heir, who would obey God’s demands (Gen 17.1b). Yet circumcision also signified the curse of judgment to sinners who would (and could) not obey God’s demands (Gen 17.1b, 9-14), and to them circumcision became uncircumcision (Rom 2.25). Overall, it’s not, as Johnson claims, that circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace to those who received it in faith but a sign of the covenant of works to those who received it without or before faith; rather it’s that circumcision was the two-sided sign of God’s two-sided covenant of grace, signifying to sinners—parents and their children alike—especially His promises of justification and life and also His threats of judgment and death.

In ch. 16, Johnson turns his attention to discrediting the paedobaptist teaching on the genealogical principle, of which Gen 17.10-13 is a key expression. To realize his aim, Johnson evaluates what he identifies as three paedobaptist beliefs: 1) what was true of Abraham’s seed must be equally true of every new covenant believer’s seed; 2) what was true of the covenants before the new covenant must be true of the new covenant; and 3) what was true of covenant households before the new covenant must be true of new covenant households. In these claims, Johnson says, paedobaptists persist in combining, as the covenants before the new covenant did, what the new covenant requires them to separate: flesh and spirit (the physical/natural and the spiritual/supernatural). Sounding like a broken record, we point out once more that Johnson again presumes that, before judgment day, the new covenant is intended to separate spirit from flesh and to identify all members gathered under it as siblings reborn of the Spirit. Though we join Johnson in his desire not to depreciate the progress of covenant history, we can’t join him as he falls for the opposite error of prematurely ushering in the world to come. That is, by arguing for baptism and the covenant of grace as he does, he would have the final separation of flesh and spirit already being realized, even while the member-branches of Abraham’s covenant family tree are still weighing the kindness and the severity of God (Rom 11.17-22).

Posted by R. Fowler White