In Genesis 17:10–14 the Lord restated His covenant promise to Abraham. To that gracious covenant He attached a sign and seal of initiation, circumcision. Those adult males who first entered the covenant assembly had to profess faith and receive the sign and seal of covenant initiation. Contrary to what the Baptist view might lead one to expect, the Lord also commanded the father of all believers (Romans 4:11) that they must also initiate their children, indeed every male in their household, as members of the covenant of grace. To enter outwardly the covenant of grace this way was to undergo a ritual death. This much is clear from Paul’s teaching in Colossian 2:11–12 where he identified circumcision and baptism with Christ’s actual death on the cross. In His death for us, Christ was, as it were, circumcised, “cut off” (Genesis 17:14; Isaiah 53:8). To fail to observe this covenant initiation was to break the covenant and risk sanction from the Lord of the covenant (cf. Exodus 4:24–26). From its institution to its fulfillment in Christ, this was the pattern of the administration of the covenant of grace for two thousand years.
It seems clear from the history of redemption, however, that not every circumcised person was either regenerated (made a new person or brought to spiritual life). Consider the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25–27). It appears from the narrative that one was blessed and the other was not. One believed and the other did not, yet both had received the same sign of covenant initiation. Outwardly, both were members of the covenant of grace and recipients of its promise: “I will be your God and your children’s God.” Nevertheless, one received the promise by faith, and the other did not (Hebrews 11:20–21).We are obligated by the clear teaching of God’s Word to explain the difference between the two as the Apostle Paul did in Romans 9:11–14
…though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad— in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’
Could Paul be more explicit? God elected Jacob, not because He foresaw anything in him or anything that he would do, but out of His good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5). The only explanation Paul offers for the fact that Jacob believed and Esau did not is God’s unconditioned (by us), eternal “purpose in election.” Both Jacob and Esau were in the covenant of grace but they were in the covenant of grace in different ways because one was elect and the other was reprobate. How should we speak of the two different ways of being in the covenant of grace? In Romans, Paul distinguishes between being a Jew “outwardly” and “inwardly” (Romans 2:28). Everyone who has been initiated into the visible covenant community and externally identified with Christ’s death (either looking forward in circumcision or looking backward in baptism) is an outward member of the covenant of grace. Not every outward member of the covenant of grace is, however, as Paul says, “a Jew inwardly.” This is because inward membership in the covenant of grace is, as Paul says, “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29).
According to Paul, there are two ways to relate to the same covenant of grace: inwardly and outwardly. Everyone who is born of covenant parents is a member of the covenant of grace outwardly and has a right to and interest in the signs and seals of the covenant of grace. We baptize covenant children because they are such. Everyone who, by faith, takes up the promises made to him in baptism is also a member of the covenant of grace inwardly. Not everyone, however, born to covenant parents will necessarily take up for himself the promises made to him in baptism.
To affirm the truth of this distinction, however, is not to devalue the signs and seals of the covenant of grace. Paul is adamant that the fault lies not with the covenant sacraments but, rather, this is the outworking of God’s purposes to His own glory (Romans 3:5). Neither did Paul invent the idea of the two ways of being in the covenant of grace. The distinction between internal and external membership goes back to Moses’ call to God’s people to “circumcise the foreskin” of their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16) and to the distinction in Jeremiah 4:4 and 9:25–26 between those who are circumcised only “in the foreskin” and those who are circumcised “in the heart.” The preaching of the prophets is virtually structured by this distinction. Surely there is an advantage to being a Jew (Romans 3:1) but merely being an outward member of the covenant community is not enough.
It is within this matrix that we must read Paul’s language in Romans 6:1–5. The Federal Visionists’ appeal to this passage as the strongest proof for their view that baptism unites every baptized person “head for head” to Christ. Read in context, however, this passage is best understood as John Calvin and most of the rest of the Reformed tradition has done.
The issue in Romans 6 is motive for and necessity of holiness. Having been justified sola gratia, sola fide, may we sin freely? Paul does not equivocate: “Anyone who has died to sin cannot live in it. Paul’s interest in this passage, then, is not to argue that every baptized person is automatically united to Christ. Rather, he appeals to baptism to illustrate the nature of the union that believers have with Christ and the nature of the benefits we enjoy as a result of that union.
With this understanding, Calvin wrote:
…our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ Himself that we become sharers in all his blessings. (Institutes 4.15.5).
Notice that, for Calvin, baptism is not said to effect union with Christ, but to serve as a testimony of our union. Baptism says that the believer is united to Christ, not that it effected that union. “It shows our mortification in Christ and our new life in Him.” Calvin goes on to say that “through baptism Christ has made us sharers in His death, that we may be engrafted in it.
For Calvin, faith and baptism have quite distinct functions. Faith receives righteousness and union with Christ, whereas baptism signifies
and seals that union. This seems clear from his lecture on Romans 6:4 where he recognized that Paul was speaking of those who believe, and with that assumption “joins the substance and the effect with the external sign.” Nevertheless, what the Lord offers in the visible symbol “is ratified” (ratum est) by faith. Whenever the dominical institution and faith are united, the sacrament is not “bare and empty.”1
For Paul, it is a certainty that believers are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. Those so united have died with him, and ought to live out that union morally, but baptism has no more power to effect this union or confer Christ’s benefits than did circumcision.
Historical and Systematic Theology
The Reformed theologians with Calvin regularly and consistently recognized the internal/external distinction and applied it to their interpretation of Scripture. Calvin understood that, in this life, though we do not know who are elect, we must recognize that there two classes of people in the congregation. For this very reason, he used the doctrine of election to explain why the visible church has two kinds of people within it. “Therefore the secret election and inner vocation of God is to be considered.” In the visible church there are always “many hypocrites mixed in, who have nothing of Christ except the title and appearance.” Calvin quite intentionally and clearly distinguished between the “sign” of the sacrament and its “truth.” He did so because one receives from baptism only as much as one receives in faith. He thought this way because he considered faith, not baptism, the instrument of justification and union with Christ.
Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587), one of the principal authors of our Heidelberg Catechism and our covenant theology taught that there are those in the church with whom God has made a covenant of grace, in the narrower sense, and those in the visible church with whom he has not. That is why he titled his major work on covenant theology: On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (Geneva, 1585).2
The internal/external distinction is built into the title of the work. The elect receive the substance (i.e., justification and sanctification) of
the covenant of grace by grace alone, through faith alone. Implied in the use of the word substance is the distinction between substance
(that which makes a thing what it is) and accidents (those things that can change without changing a thing). Thus, for Olevianus, the covenant of grace, construed narrowly (or internally), is made only with the elect. Considered broadly (or externally), however, the covenant of grace can be said to include “hypocrites” and “reprobates.” They share in the administration of the covenant of grace, they participate in “external worship,” but they do not enter into true fellowship with Christ.
Only the elect believe and only they receive Christ’s benefits, i.e., the substance of the covenant.3 Christ is present and offered to the congregation, but Christ and his benefits are received through faith alone. One finds this very same distinction also in the theology of Olevianus’ colleague and the principal author of our catechism, Zacharias Ursinus.4
This distinction was made not only at the beginning of Reformed theology, but throughout the classical period of Reformed theology. For example, at the end of the 17th century, Herman Witsius (1636– 1708) wrote:
…the participation of the covenant of grace is two fold. The one includes merely symbolical and common benefits, which have no certain connection with salvation, and to which infants are admitted by their relation to parents that are within the covenant; and adults, by the profession of faith and repentance, even though insincere.… The other participation of the covenant of grace, is the partaking of its internal, spiritual, and the saving goods, as the forgiveness of sins, the writing of the law in the heart, etc. Accordingly the apostle makes a distinction between the Jew outwardly and the Jew inwardly,—between circumcision in the flesh and the letter, and circumcision in the heart and Spirit; which, by analogy may be transferred to Christianity.5
Consistently, then, in the classical period of our theology, we accounted for the co–existence in the visible church of believers and
hypocrites by speaking of those who are in the church externally only, by baptism, and those who are also in the church internally
through faith which apprehends Christ and his benefits. Both sets of people are in the covenant of grace but they sustain different relations to it.
In the modern period of Reformed theology, in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck intentionally carried on the classic Reformed pattern of distinguishing the two ways of being in the covenant of grace. He regarded it as “self evident” there will be in the covenant of grace, until the consummation, both those who believe and those who make a profession of faith but who are “inwardly unbelieving,” who “do not share in the covenant’s benefits.” He also rejected the attempt by some to exclude the unbelieving from any relation to the covenant of grace whatever. They are “not of the covenant, they are in the covenant and will someday be judged accordingly.”6
In many ways, Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) was Herman Bavinck’s successor, and indeed devoted an entire section of his Reformed Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) to a discussion of the “Dual Aspect of the Covenant,” under the heading of “covenant and election.” He expressed some misgivings about the traditional language, but nevertheless he held and taught the same basic distinction as Bavinck and the earlier Reformed theologians.
He followed his predecessor Geerhardus Vos in speaking of those who have a purely legal or objective relation to the covenant of grace and those who enjoy a “communion of life.”7 He argued that the unregenerate are “in the covenant” in four ways, in that covenant membership entails responsibility to repent and believe, in that they may lay claim to the promises of the covenant by faith (not all unregenerate remain in that state!), in that they are recipients of the ministry of the covenant, and in that they experience blessings common to all members of the covenant of grace. Those who show themselves to be unbelieving and impenitent, however, are genuine covenant breakers.8
Even though there have been some modern Reformed writers who have expressed doubts about the utility of speaking of the visible and invisible church (e.g., John Murray) and others who have rejected the internal/external distinction altogether (e.g., Klaas Schilder, Norman Shepherd, and the Federal Visionists) nevertheless, Bavinck and Berkhof witness to its ongoing vitality in modern Reformed theology.9
1 T.H.L. Parker, ed., Commentarius
in Epistolam Pauli Ad Romanos,
Ionnis Calvini Opera Omnia, Series
II: Ionnis Calvini Opera
Exegetica (Geneva: Droz, 1999)
2 Casper Olevianus, De Substantia
Foederis Gratuiti Inter Deum
Et Electos (Geneva:1585), 3.418.
3. De Substantia 2.53
4 Lyle D. Bierma, ed., An Introduction
to the Heidelberg Catechism:
Sources, History, and
Theology, Texts and Studies in
Reformation and Post-Reformation
Thought (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 2005) p.185-186.
5 Modified from the translation in
Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations
on the Apostles’ Creed, ed.
Donald Fraser, 2 vols. (Edinburgh
and Glasgow: A. Fullarton & Co.
and Khull, Blackie and Co., 1823
2.354-355. Herman Witsius,
Hermanni Witsii Exercitationes
Sacrae in Symbolum Quod
Apostolorum Dictur et in
Orationem Dominicam, 3rd Ed.
(Amsterdam: 1997) 453-454. See
also, Herman Witsius, The
Economy of the Covenants between
God and Man, trans. William
Crookshank, 2 vols.
(Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed
Publishing; reprint, 1990)
6 Herman Bavink, Reformed Dogmatics.
Volume 3: Sin and Salvation
in Christ, trans. John Vriend, ed.,
John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker,
7 Berkhof, Systematic Theology,
8 Berkhof, Systematic Theology,
9 J. Kamphuis, An Everlasting
Covenant, trans. G. van Rongen
(Launceston, Australia: Free Reformed
Churches of Australia,
1985), 40-75, defends the
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Associate Professor of Historic
and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.
Schilderite view and provides some
English translation of background
documents that are useful in understanding
the struggle in the Netherlands
in the 1940s over these questions.