In my last article, I noted that a covenant has three basic elements: parties, promises, and conditions. The parties of the covenant of grace vary depending upon which perspective of the covenant is being considered. Externally or administratively speaking the covenant is between God and all professing believers, along with their children. Internally or effectually speaking, the covenant is between God and the elect. This important distinction pertaining to the parties of the covenant of grace will need to be kept in mind as we now turn our attention to the second basic element of a covenant: the promises.
According to the Westminster Standards, the promises of the Covenant of Grace are of two sorts, conditional and unconditional. God promises life and salvation conditionally. The Confession (ch. 7.3) and Larger Catechism (Q&A 32) both assert that God will freely give life and salvation in Christ Jesus to those who believe in Christ. These two sections of the Standards also state that God unconditionally promises to enable the elect to meet the requirements or conditions so that they will be saved. The Confession says that God promises “to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.” Similarly, but with greater detail, the Larger Catechism says that God “promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.” In sum, the Covenant of Grace includes promises of grace and promises to grace. Samuel Rutherford nicely captured both types of promises, which he relates to the external and internal perspectives of the covenant. He wrote:
For all the promises belong not the same way, to the parties visibly and externally, and to the parties internally and personally in Covenant with God. So the Lord promiseth life and forgivenesse shall be given to these who are externally in the Covenant, providing they beleeve, but the Lord promiseth not a new heart and grace to beleeve, to these that are only externally in Covenant. And yet he promiseth both to the Elect.
The presence of conditional covenant promises provides an answer to an objection against infant baptism. It has been argued that the baptisms of non-elect infants are in vain because the promises of saving grace are not made to them. There is no promise or reality for baptism to seal because there is no underlying promise to regenerate and save. Thus, as John Tombes put it in his response to Stephen Marshall, “the seale is put to a blank.” But baptism is not sealed to a blank when it is applied to non-elect infants, or we might add to non-elect professing adults, because the sacraments, like the covenant promises they signify and seal, are conditional signs and seals. As Marshall said, “the receivers interest in that spiritual part of the Covenant, that is sealed to no receiver absolutely, but conditionally; in this particular, all Sacraments are but signa conditionalia, conditional seales, sealing the spiritual part of the Covenant to the receiver, upon condition that hee performe the spirituall condition of the Covenant” (Marshall also notes that baptism is not in vain because it is an “absolute Seale of the truth of the Covenant of grace in it self” and “an absolute obligation upon the receiver to a make good the Covenant on his part.”).
In short, God promises to save and does save the person who believes in Jesus; and he seals this promise and reality in baptism. This was true of circumcision in the Old Testament (Rom. 4:11). Baptism, therefore, is never in vain or set to a blank.