Bite-Size Bunyan (4): The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded
September 28, 2017
Even though he wrote it as relatively recent convert and at the young age of 31, The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659) is one of John Bunyan’s most theologically developed works. It also sets forth his two-covenant theology likely impacted by his reading of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians (1535), which itself echoes the covenant theology of Augustine. For Bunyan, an Old Covenant under Adam promising life for obedience remained in effect after the fall but without the possibility of fulfilling the conditions. This necessitated the New Covenant of grace fulfilled in the person and work of Christ on behalf of the elect. In summary, everyone is either under the law by way of the Old Covenant or grace by way of the New Covenant in Christ.
Bunyan’s thought parallels in different ways sixteenth and seventeenth-century British federal theologians such as Robert Rollock, William Perkins, William Ames, John Ball, Samuel Petto, Edward Fisher, and Tobias Crisp. This included a two-covenant theology of works and grace, a two-Adam federal representation, viewing the Mosaic Covenant in some sense as a republished covenant of works, a growing emphasis on a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son, election as the foundation for the covenant of grace, and seeking a balance between the unconditional and conditional aspects of the Covenant of Grace.
In Law and Grace, Bunyan develops his covenant theology on Romans 6:14, “ye are not under the law, but under grace.” He considers the Old Covenant law not just as the Mosaic Covenant but as the restated Covenant of Works, which now cannot promise life except as fulfilled by Christ. In this manner, and in contrast to mainstream Puritanism, Bunyan did not view the Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace, but that which drove men to the latter covenant.
So, those under the Old Covenant could still have access to grace, “the free love of God in Christ,” who delivers sinners from “the curse and condemning power of the old covenant.” This New Covenant of Grace made the Covenant of Works “old,” because the latter was not established upon grace. God made the new covenant with Christ before time on behalf of believers, though it encompasses other covenants made with men in redemptive history, namely, those with Adam (Gen. 3:15), Noah, Abraham, and David as “types” of Jesus.
Regarding Christ’s fulfillment of the demands of the Covenant of Works, he exists as the “second Adam” in history who “was before the first” as the eternal Son of God. Similarly, we should see “the second covenant” of grace “before the first” of works. Without using the explicit wording, Bunyan clearly espouses a pactum salutis or covenant of redemption made eternally with Christ on behalf of the elect. His understanding here was possibly influenced by Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645).
In summary, for Bunyan, “law” and “grace” in Romans 6:14 denote “the two covenants which all men are under; that is, either the one or the other.” Such a Covenant of Grace ran parallel to the Old Mosaic Covenant of Works into which one could participate through the Spirit of regeneration who produced faith in Christ. As a Baptist, he sees the New Covenant as completely co-extensive with the Covenant of Grace. To be under the former is to be under the latter.
In contrast to the Reformed Orthodox of his century, Bunyan tended to remove any sense of conditionality in the Covenant of Grace. Leaning towards those accused of antinomianism (e.g. John Saltmarsh and Tobias Crisp), he sought to safeguard salvation by free grace through the emphasis on an unconditional covenant. In line with this, Bunyan asserts that obedience can never be viewed as the ground for assurance, which would mean dependence on a “Legal and Old Covenant-Spirit” seeking persuasion by being “fitted for Christ” with an obedient frame. Bunyan qualifies this with an anti-antinomian warning to avoid the charge, “the Doctrine of the Gospel is a licentious Doctrine.” Only “fools” conclude this as those who never “tasted of the virtue of the Blood of Jesus Christ.” Thus, he sets forth the distinction between duties performed from either a “Legal or Evangelical” frame. Clearly, while he wants to avoid any sense of faith connected to obedience as a condition, he maintains the non-meritorious necessity of works for the elect.
In the end, we may find Bunyan’s covenant theology in need of some adjustment. However, he solidly and simply presents a two-Adam two-covenant structure of works and grace grounded in a Christ-centered doctrine of salvation and founded upon the sovereign decree of election.