Q&A: Unbelievers in Covenant

Unbelievers in Covenant

Question

I have a question about the nature of the New Covenant.  I have been debating a Baptist friend online in a Reformed message board about whether or not there are unbelievers included in the New Covenant.  I have argued that the warning passages given in the book of Hebrews and the many parallels given between the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant strongly suggest that members of the covenant can break the covenant (of course, the elect keep the covenant, while the non-elect do not).  However, it has been argued by some Presbyterians in the message board that the New Covenant is not conditional, but that it only contains believers.  But this is the same argument that Baptists use to argue against paedobaptism because they will not allow for an unregenerate person to receive the sign of the covenant.

Do you think the New Covenant is breakable?  Do you think that the warnings of apostasy in Hebrews apply to New Covenant members who, if they do not remain faithful to Christ, will be covenant breakers?  If not, then who do the warnings apply to?

Answer

On the New Covenant: Since in Jeremiah it is said to provide for the forgiveness of sins and the writing of the law on the heart, we are inclined to say that it includes only the elect. But the NT warning passages suggest that it is like the earlier covenants-- that people can belong to it and then fall away.

So it seems to have two dimensions. The covenant in Jeremiah 31 implies that only the elect belong to it. Nevertheless, there is a visible expression of that covenant, the church. When people enter the church, they subscribe to the New Covenant by receiving baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The elders seek to make a judgment as to whether those requesting baptism (for themselves or their children) are making a credible profession. A "credible profession" is all that they are able to see; they cannot see the heart. Ordinarily, a credible profession is a symptom of a regenerate heart. But sometimes it isn't; or sometimes elders may use standards of credibility that are too low. And of course not every baby baptized in infancy becomes a regenerate person. For such reasons, unregenerate people sometimes do enter the church. They are "in" the New Covenant from the church's point of view, because they have subscribed to that covenant. They are not in it from God'spoint of view, for they are not elect in Christ.
So there does seem even in the New Covenant to be a distinction between inner and outer, between "Israel" and "of Israel."

Hope these comments are helpful. You might also look at Chapter 16 of Doctrine of God where I distinguish between historical and eternal election.


Answer by Dr. John M. Frame

Dr. John M. Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.