I’ll confess, one time I said from the pulpit, “We are Baptists and so we do not hold to covenant theology.” I was a bit naïve. If you are a Baptist and claim to adhere to covenant theology, then you probably have had someone look at you cross-eyed. After all, most people think covenant theology is only for our Presbyterian brethren. In order to uphold the distinctives that mark our Baptist identity, however, retrieving Baptist covenant theology would serve our churches well. To defend our views on regenerate membership, congregational polity, and religious liberty, we can look back at our rich tradition and learn from how Baptists in the past articulated these views based upon a distinct covenant theology. James P. Boyce (1859–1888), founder and first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a distinct Baptist covenant theology in his Abstract of Systematic Theology that demands careful attention for contemporary Baptists.

Covenant theology for Southern Baptists?

Boyce discusses the covenants in Chapter 22, which deals with “The Fall of Man.” In identifying Adam’s fall, Boyce writes that “The fall of Man occurred when he was on probation under the covenant of works.”[1] Adamic headship is not only a natural but a federal connection that exists between Adam and all his posterity. As Thomas J. Nettles points out, “[Boyce] accepted the covenant relationship as prior to the natural relationship.”[2]

Boyce works through the implications of what it means that a covenant of works was made with Adam. Adam’s role in the covenant of works as man’s representative explains the consequences that befall all of mankind. Boyce explains how this is vital for understanding the plight of mankind due to sin:

The Scriptures teach that the fall of Adam involved also that of his posterity. In the covenant, under which he sinned, he acted not merely as an individual man, the sole one of his kind, or one isolated from all others of his kind, but, as the head of the race, for his posterity as well as himself. The condition of mankind shows that they have all participated with him in the evils which resulted.[3]

Adam’s covenant headship has ramifications for Christ’s covenant role. Whereas sin is imputed to Adam’s posterity due to his headship, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to his elect. The nature of Christ’s covenant role is linked to his work of atonement. Boyce writes that the Son was “designated by the Father to this position, that he might be the legal representative of his people and their covenant head.”[4]  Thus, Boyce demonstrates how the work of Christ as mediator of the covenant of grace relates to the blessings of salvation.

As Boyce unpacks the blessings of justification, he further ties it back to the covenant of grace and the work of Christ. He elaborates that, “It is a vital and spiritual as well as a legal and federal union between Christ and his people. By virtue of this they are identified with him in his relation to God as their Representative and Covenant Head, and are made partakers of all the blessings which he has obtained as an inheritance.”[5] In his section on the final perseverance of the saints, Boyce articulates how the new covenant of grace differs from the old covenant. Boyce writes,

It is especially to be noticed, also, that the new covenant made in Christ, is one which includes not only the promise of the blessings, but of the establishment in his people of the conditions upon which these blessings depend. The nature of the new covenant is set forth in the prophecy of Jeremiah, and, with its statements, many other Scripture passages concur. From its very nature, it is impossible that the blessings promised in it should not be given to all the people of God.[6]

Herein Boyce set forth the historic Baptist view that sees all those in the new covenant of grace being full members who receive all the blessings of that covenant due to Christ being their covenant head. For Boyce, the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace was significant.

Covenant theology for today

Covenant theology, as found in the Baptist tradition and represented by figures such as Boyce, provides pastors with a biblically rich hermeneutic that will aid them in demonstrating to their congregations the unity and flow of the redemptive story. Furthermore, the covenant faithfulness of the triune God provides believers with a sure foundation of assurance. The eternality of the covenant causes weary hearts to be refreshed in Christ and not doubt the promises of God. As pastors seek to shepherd the hearts of their flock, pointing them to the glories of the new covenant of grace will be a balm to souls. As Boyce demonstrated, the superiority of the new covenant is found in knowing that Christ has purchased and provided all of the blessings to His people.

Finally, Baptist ecclesiology is biblically and historically based upon our understanding of the covenants. As calls to downplay ecclesiological distinctives continue in our day, turning to Baptist polity requires us to comprehend Baptist views on the covenants. Following the stream of Baptist writings on the covenants, Boyce’s careful distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace possesses implications for how we view the church and the state. Figures like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Clarke, Abraham Booth, and Isaac Backus all took great pains to demonstrate how the fatal flaw of mixing church and state together could be traced back to faulty covenant theology. These Baptists of old stressed the distinction between the covenants as one of their primary reasons for advocating views like religious liberty. The state and the church are not given the same spheres of authority. A political nation is not rooted in the new covenant: the church of Jesus Christ is.

In explaining the covenants, Boyce stood in the line of these early Baptists who understood that the Baptist movement was a covenant-based movement.[7] The writings of James P. Boyce regarding covenant theology will enable Baptists to not only expound upon the blessings of the gospel but defend Baptist views regarding ecclesiology. Whether you fully agree with Boyce or not on the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, this Southern Baptist theologian of the past is worthy of your engagement in the present


[1] James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, (1887; repr., Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2013), 210.

[2] Thomas J. Nettles, James P. Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 422.

[3] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 222.

[4] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 291.

[5] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 362.

[6] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 391.

[7] For a helpful discussion on these issues, see Thomas J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People in Forming Baptist Identity, vol. 1, Beginnings in Britain (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005,) 44–46.