The Half-Way Covenant and Presbyterianism

Vanguard Presbytery

            News: The website for Vanguard Presbytery (www.vanguardpresbytery.com), has now passed 50,000 views. That indicates more interest in what we are doing than some people are willing to admit. We have not and do not recruit people. They come to us. They seek us out. It is the same way with our website. Every week I receive emails from people who will say something like this: “A friend told me about Vanguard, so I went to your website and read many of the articles. Please put me on your email list.”

            The following article is about a view of the covenant of grace held by Rev. Solomon Stoddard, the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards. I originally intended to write a different article for today, but the next 4-5 articles will relate to this one and can best be understood by placing this one first.

The Half-Way Covenant and Presbyterianism

            The ‘Half-Way Covenant’ was a view of God’s covenantal promises to believers and their children that originated with Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729). At the age of 18, Stoddard put forth his ideas concerning the Lord’s Supper while a member of the church at Northampton, Massachusetts.[1] Rev. Eleazar Mather, a great-uncle of Cotton Mather, was the Puritan minister of that congregation and believed (as did other Puritans) that before children could be admitted to the Lord’s table they needed to give credible evidence of a spiritual conversion to Christ. “Previously it had been understood that to profess faith in Christ included professing one’s experience of Christ; a communicant professed not simply objective truths but also the godliness which those truths entail.”[2] Stoddard, in an effort to increase the membership of the church, wanted to relax those standards so that professing one’s experience of Christ was no longer required. He proposed that anyone baptized in infancy who lived a moral life should be allowed to come to the Lord’s Table. He also expanded the covenant promises to the grandchildren of believing grandparents in the instance where the parents of such children were not members of the church. Communion, Stoddard thought, would confer such grace on those mere professors that they would someday come to true salvation. Thus, his plan was the separation of objective truth from the subjective experience of those truths. Stoddard’s plan was adopted by the New England Congregationalists in 1662, but the effect of this view was not really felt until the early years of the eighteenth century. By that time, there was a great declension of true godliness in America which was described by Cotton Mather:

It is confessed by all who know anything of the matter. . . that there is a general and horrible decay of Christianity, among professors of it. . . The modern Christianity is too generally a spectre, scarce shadow of the ancient. . . So notorious is this decay of Christianity, that whole books are even now and then written to enquire into it.[3]

            The half-way covenant played the major part in the event that led to dismissal of Stoddard’s famous grandson, Jonathan Edwards, from that same Northampton pulpit in the summer of 1750 by a vote of 220 to 23. That church had experienced a remarkable awakening under Edwards’ preaching in 1734, but the problem of too many unconverted members of that congregation, many of them even Edwards’ relatives, led to that sad result. Edwards differed with his grandfather and pressed the demands of the gospel on the members of that congregation.

            Neither Edwards nor his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, were Presbyterians. Edwards almost became a Presbyterian minister at the behest of Samuel Davies, but that is a story for another day. Yet, this matter of the ‘Half-way Covenant’ is relevant to Presbyterianism. For too many years, Presbyterians have operated more on the side of the ‘Half-way Covenant’ view of things. Children baptized in infancy have routinely been brought into the church as communicant members at the age of 12 following a communicant’s class with little or no examination of their experience of grace. Thankfully, the polity of most Presbyterian denominations is better than the theology of most pastors and elders on this point. Vanguard Presbytery, like most every Presbyterian book of polity that I have consulted, has a chapter titled, The Discipline of Non-Communing Members. That is chapter 30 in our proposed Book of Church Order. The very existence of such a chapter is a testimony to the fact that not every person baptized in infancy can be expected to be a member of the church before adulthood. BCO 30-4 says, “Adult non-communing members who receive with meekness and appreciation the oversight and instruction of the Church are entitled to special attention.” By virtue of being born of Christian parents, they are members of the visible church. They are baptized as infants on the basis of that membership in the visible church and God’s covenant promises to the children of believers. But they should not be received as communicant members of the church until they make such credible profession of both the truths of the Christian faith and their own experience of God’s redeeming grace.

            It is certainly true that we can never perfectly examine the spiritual condition of another person. Only God knows the heart. Yet, there are many instances in which it is important for us to make some assessment of their true spiritual condition. Marriage is one such occasion. Church membership is another. We must walk straight down the razor’s edge in this matter. We must avoid the dangers of either being too strict or too loose. Even the great Scottish theologian, James Bannerman, who wrote The Church of Christ, had difficulty at this point in my opinion. I believe that his view is too loose concerning membership. He summarized the difference between the Independent view of church membership and the Presbyterian view of the same in this way:

In the first place, the Independent system of Church membership is founded on a denial of the distinction between the invisible and the visible Church of Christ. . . In the third place, there seems to be much more than a mere analogy to be gathered from Scripture in favour of a visible Church, made up of outward or professing Christians, and not true believers exclusively.[4]  

            Bannerman then refers to several of the kingdom parables (wheat and tares, dragnet full of fish, etc.) as proof that professing Christians should be allowed to remain in the visible church until the day of judgment. In the parable of the wheat and tares, Jesus advises that both should be allowed to grow together until the harvest. Yet, the Scripture also teaches that there are some professing church members who must be disciplined and even excommunicated, if necessary. In Matthew 18:15-18, Christ gives us steps that must be taken in order to reclaim an erring brother. If he refuses to listen to us, refuses to listen to one or two witnesses with us, and finally refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to become like a Gentile to us. That is, he is to be put out of the church. The man in the church at Corinth is an example of one who had to be delivered over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh (1 Corinthians 5:3-5). Achan (Joshua 7:16-27) sinned by taking the mantle in Jericho which was under the ban and he was stoned to death by Israel so God’s judgment of the nation would be withdrawn. There are many more examples in the Scripture that the removal of sinners from the visible body of Christ is sometimes necessary. The fencing of the Lord’s Supper and the warnings to the profane or unrepentant are other examples that the church must not simply let things grow together without exercising discipline (Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Jesus’ parables are misinterpreted if they are understood to disregard the keys of the kingdom in the binding and loosing obligations given to her by Christ (Cf. Matthew 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23). Both the front door and the back door of the church must be guarded. The church must be careful to receive only those members who give credible evidence that they are Christians and also must remove those whose lives appear to be out of accord with the gospel. The first responsibility is the binding obligation and concerns the receiving of members into the church. The second responsibility is the loosing obligation and concerns the removing of members from the church through discipline.

            In my opinion, Bannerman (and many Presbyterians with him) errs when he makes the distinction between the visible and invisible church the primary issue. The issue when a candidate baptized in infancy presents himself for communicant membership is not the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church. The real issue is closely related to that, but it is slightly different. The real issue is the same as when an adult who has never been baptized presents himself for membership. The real issue is that the church must assess whether or not that person both professes the true faith and gives credible evidence that they have experienced the saving grace of Christ. That is the same issue that a session must consider when examining men for the offices of elder and deacon or that a Presbytery must consider when receiving a candidate for the ministry. A simple profession of the correct doctrines of the Scripture is not sufficient in any of these instances. What is wanted is some evidence to the judgment of Christian charity that such a person is a true believer from the heart. It is the desire that every such person who joins the church or becomes an officer or enters into the ministry is a sound convert according to what Paul says in Romans 2:28, 29 (substitute Christian for Jew and baptism for circumcision and you have a beautiful definition of a Christian). There is no way that we can guarantee that all such persons will be true converts, but we must do our best to maintain that goal. There will be both good and bad fish that are caught. There will be both wheat and tares. There will be those who once walked with us but who no longer do so. Some who once were in the church will return to the world like a dog returns to its vomit.

            These issues are important to us for several reasons. First, the position of Stoddard concerning the Lord’s Supper was closer to the position of Catholicism than Protestantism. His view made communion into an ordinance that could confer saving grace. The Protestant position is that the sacraments are subservient to the work of the Holy Spirit and do not confer saving grace in themselves. Stoddard’s position is closer to the Federal Vision heresy of today than to evangelicalism.

            Second, I have often heard Presbyterians boast that, unlike reformed Baptists, we do not believe in a pure church. I certainly hope we are striving to keep the church as pure as possible. Only the Lord knows the heart, but we have to exercise our best judgment in receiving members into communion. We want our congregations to be predominately composed of true believers. A congregation full of unconverted people is a difficult church for any pastor.

            Third, it appears to me from conversing with many pastors that this is one reason they are at peace in remaining in denominations that permit heresy. That is, an impure church or denomination does not bother them. They have come to expect such. In fact, one pastor even told me that he would be happy to defend why he remains in a denomination that permits heresy. But, where does the Scripture tell us that it is acceptable to accommodate heresy? Where does the Scripture tell us that we should not be bothered by being unequally yoked? 2 Corinthians 6:14, 15 says, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” A true believer is known by what he believes and what he does. A true believer is known by his profession and his fruits. We must be careful according to Scripture to not be bound together with unbelievers.    

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery. (You may mail contributions to Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540).    


[1] Church Record Book MS., Church of Christ Congregational, Northampton MA (H G Swanhart: 1929), 50.

[2] Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 89.

[3] Thomas Prince, The Christian History, Containing Accounts of the Revival and Propagation of Religion in Great-Britain and America, For the year 1743 (Boston: S. Kneeland and T. Green, 1744), 104.

[4] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, Volume I (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 74, 76.  

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