Someone Else's Mail

23 August 2011 by Brad Williams

Q. 33. Was the covenant of grace always administered after one and the same manner?

A. The covenant of grace was not always administered after the same manner, but the administrations of it under the old testament were different from those under the new.

The more I read question 33 of this catechism, the more I like it. I like it because hardly any Baptist I know would even think to ask this question, much less have the theological acumen to begin an answer. I know about Baptists and theology; I am one. This isn't a crass remark coming from the outside, it is the sad confession of one with almost ten years experience in shepherding Baptist sheep.

Baptists, and perhaps other evangelicals as well, struggle with the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New. It is, for them, an uneasy marriage. For Baptists, it is because our theology of the Lord's Supper is about as deep as the thimbles we drink our juice from, and because we call everything a 'symbol' to the extent that we have forgotten the reality.

It's sort of like a guy named O'Reily who takes a vacation to Ireland. His family has lived in America for 200 years, but he has a longing to see the Emerald Isle and the land of his ancestors. While there, he picks up a cool keychain with the O'Reily crest on it. It is a 'symbol' for his family, but he has no idea what the raging lions mean or the bloody severed hand, and so he just buys it because he is an O'Reily. He shows his little trinket to his pals, along with the cool shillelagh he got at the gift shop, without bothering to figure out why this thing has symbolized his family for hundreds of years.

If Baptists know anything, they know that we are saved by faith alone and not by works. We beat one another over the head saying that baptism doesn't save, church membership doesn't save, and the Lord's Supper doesn't save; nothing but the blood of Jesus that can make the sinner clean. So Baptist hoorah salvation by grace alone through faith alone and regulate the Lord's Supper to once every fifth Sunday because, well, we are supposed to do that, not in a saving way, but in a "I got my keychain in Ireland" kind of way. (The shame!)

So Baptists could stand for a preacher of mettle to stand before them and ask, "Beloved, did an Israelite have to offer his little lamb in order to be right with God? And if he did, were people under the Old Covenant saved by grace or by works?" See, that little question right there would obliterate the average Baptist's apple cart. They are just legalist enough to say that the offering is required for salvation, but are able to grasp salvation by grace alone through faith alone enough to recoil at the thought of salvation by works. So they would sit there in gobsmacked silence, with only the sound of rustling bulletins and jangling key chains for comfort.

So allow me to be bold and speak as if insane: God did not justify a single man or woman or child under the Old Covenant by the gift of rams, bulls, or goats. Yet, if a man failed in this duty, it was a sure sign that he was not justified. We simply do not give the OT brethren enough credit: they knew and were looking for the Messiah to come. All the sacrifices and feast days that God called Israel to participate in were beacons that pointed to Jesus. If an Israelite loved God and believed in his promises, he was sanctified by sacrifices and feasts and the law of Moses because they taught him of his own wretchedness, of his need for the people of God, and of his desperate hope that God Himself would provide a sacrifice to save him from his sins.

This is why Jesus broke bread with his disciples. "Do this in remembrance of me" certainly means we ought to remember that Jesus was broken for us just like the broken bread. But that isn't the only thing we are to remember. We must remember where he came from, why he came, whose Son he is, how he treated his brothes, and how great his love for us must be. When we meditate on these things, we grow in grace, and our longing for the reminder that the Lord's Supper brings will also grow.

And how can we recount the glories of baptism? For the one undergoing this ordinance, it is a faith-building, sanctifying thing. That is, and I speak as a Baptist, as the new believer looks upon the sea of faces from the baptistry, he sees a family united by the death and resurrection of Christ. If he is taught to look hard enough, he can see down the corridors of time to those long since dead, entering this same baptism and this same family by grace through faith. This family, this wretched, happy family, is a family born of blood and water and fire. It is a family filled with people who have reached out to grab the gospel through preaching and sacrifices and lambs and fellowship and baptisms and communions, and who have hung onto every gospel promise for dear life.

If only we could begin to understand the various administrations of grace! We might find in them a door for our own sanctification in Christ, and we might start reading the Old Covenant, not as someone else's mail, but a book written by our family to our family and for our salvation.