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Early Thoughts on Covenant Theology

February 28, 2009 28 comments

**This posts represents my attempt to work out my understanding of these issues, and since its writing nearly 3 years ago my views have matured and been refined a little (at least I hope). Please see my posts in the covenants category. I have not arrived and would greatly appreciated helpful criticism**

Chapter VII

Of God’s Covenant with Man

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.[1]

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,[2] wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity,[3] upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[4]

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,[5] commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved,[6] and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.[7]

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.[8]

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel:[9] under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come;[10] which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah,[11] by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.[12]

VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance,[13] was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:[14] which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy,[15] to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;[16] and is called the New Testament.[17] There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.[18]

Until recently, my understanding of covenant theology was largely limited to it’s contrast with dispensationalism. I was shown how the church is the true Israel of God, that the church is not a parenthesis between God’s real ultimate plan for the physical descendants of Abraham and how anyone who has ever been saved, from Adam to Abraham, to Moses, to David, was saved by faith in the work of Jesus Christ.

I saw that national Israel was a shadow, a type of the church. Reading Ezekial 36 and Jeremiah 31, I saw how God had saved the true Israel (Adam and Abraham and Moses and David) by replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh, by writing his law on their hearts, and by forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more. In essence, I saw how Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David were members of the New Covenant, the only covenant of which Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest.

But as I began studying covenant theology, I became greatly confused as I learned that my understanding of covenant theology was not in fact what is commonly understood as covenant theology.

Israel/Church

For example, I began reading how national Israel was not a type of the church. National Israel actually was the church, just under a previous dispensation or administration. The argument being that God has always saved man through the Covenant of Grace and that national Israel, the Mosaic covenant, was a dispensation or administration of that one single Covenant of Grace.

Several months ago I read John Reisinger’s Abraham’s Four Seeds. One thing that stuck out, that I found frustrating, was Reisinger’s insistence that covenant theology identifies national Israel with the church. I thought that was a terrible mis-characterization of covenant theology. I didn’t believe that and I believed covenant theology. Well, now that I have actually started to study covenant theology I realize that he was right. While I don’t agree with other things in the book, I do find myself in agreement with this oft-repeated quote:

Dispensationalism cannot get Israel and the church together in any sense whatsoever, and Covenant Theology cannot get them apart.

Is the New Covenant Eternal?

Likewise, I was shocked to read Samuel Waldron’s Exposition of the London Baptist Confession and read that this single overarching Covenant of Grace is not, in fact, the same thing as the New Covenant. The New Covenant, he argues, was not inaugurated until the advent of Christ. Thus the New Covenant (as described in Jeremiah 31) is only a particular dispensation or administration of the Covenant of Grace.

James White seems to agree with this view when he says:

So, if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it. It is an exhaustive demonstration of grace, for all in the New Covenant experience all that is inherent in
the covenant in the blood of the Son of God….

…Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new.

The Newness of the New Covenant

So the Old Covenant was salvific, it just was not salvific for everyone in it. The newness of the New Covenant is not that it saves, but that it saves all.

I disagree.

Did the Mosaic Covenant Save?

I do not believe that the Mosaic Covenant eternally saved anyone. I do not believe it was ever intended to. Hebrews 10:4 notes that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But if the Mosaic Covenant did not save anyone and if the sacrificial system it established did not take away any sins, what was the point? Hebrews 9:13-14 explains:

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctifyfor the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify ourconscience from dead works to serve the living God.

The sacrifices of the Old Covenant purified the flesh of the Israelites. That was it’s purpose. It was never intended to purify their souls because it could not. To help explain what I am saying, it is helpful to understand the debate about “republication.”

Re-Publication

Basically, the proponents of republication claim that the Mosaic Covenant was a republication of the Covenant of Works. This is more than saying it is simply a republication of the law, for most all agree that the Decalogue was originally written on Adam’s heart and is not a new set of laws. Beyond saying it is a republication of the laws of the Covenant of Works, it says it is a republication of the Covenant of Works itself, the essential aspect being the re-establishment of a works based principle. For a good, short introduction to this issue, read R. Scott Clark’s 3-part blog post Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works.

Opponents to this view rightly object that since Adam’s fall, there is no hope for man to save himself by work. Even if, hypothetically, a man could perfectly obey the law, he is still under Adam’s federal headship, and thus he is still legally condemned. So God cannot be reinstating the possibility for man to save himself.

Since Adam failed the probationary test we cannot now fulfill the requirements of this covenant and since according to Romans 5 the curse of this failure continues in us since Adam was our covenantal head it would therefore not make sense that God would put us again under a covenant which had been broken by Adam’s disobedience (and our disobedience in Adam).
Covenant of Grace and the Mosaic Law

These men say that the Mosaic Covenant is not a covenant of works. The law is not given as a condition for man, but rather, as a guide to show the redeemed how to live. The prologue to the law in Deuteronomy 5 states: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus the law is given to an already redeemed people to show them how to live, thus the Mosaic Covenant is all of grace. Or so the argument goes.

But the language of the Mosaic Covenant is clearly conditional.  In Deuteronomy 27:26 we read “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” And Leviticus 18:5 states “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”

Copies and Shadows

So is the Mosaic Covenant a re-publication of the Covenant of Works or not? Well… not exactly. It is clearly a conditional covenant based upon works, but the cursing and blessing is not exactly the same. Deuteronomy 5 states:

32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.

And Deuteronomy 11:

8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, 9 and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The author of Hebrews notes that the sacrificial system in Israel is a copy and a shadow of the substance, which is Christ.

Hebrews 8:4 …there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

In the same way, the Mosaic Covenant is a copy of the Covenant of Works with Adam. If Adam broke his covenant of works, he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. So to, if the nation of Israel broke it’s covenant of works, it would be expelled, or vomited from the Promised Land. And here is precisely where things begin to come into focus. Much of the covenant theology that I have read ignores the typical aspect of the Old Covenant and thus greatly misunderstands it (IMO). The entire covenant was a type, and it was not in any way part of the Covenant of Grace.

No Grace in the Mosaic Covenant?

Now, the Mosaic Covenant was not a covenant of pure works. For as soon as it was given, Moses found the Israelites worshiping an idol. The Israelites continued to break the covenant, yet they were not immediately expelled. Why? Because of the covenant that God made with Abraham. Specifically, the covenant that Christ would come from his seed (Galatians 3:15-18). Thus to expel the Israelites, to disperse them and to kill them, God would have to break his covenant with Abraham.

So how can God overlook violations of his covenant with Israel over their land? By a sacrificial system. Thus the priesthood is established and sacrifices offered as a means of purifying the flesh. It was a temporal sacrifice, that resulted in a temporal forgiveness of a temporal covenant. The entire sacrificial system of Israel was never intended to atone for anyone’s eternal damnation. Rather, it was intended to atone for their physical expulsion from the Promised Land, which is a type of the Heavenly Promised Land. And thus Hebrews begins to make much more sense:

9:23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.

But What of Abraham?

Then how are we to view God’s covenant with Abraham? The Mosaic Covenant is clearly related to the Abrahamic Covenant. The previously quoted passage from Deuteronomy says “that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring.” How can we then say that the promise that God made with Abraham is conditional and based on works? That would destroy the Covenant of Grace completely.

The answer lies in letting the New Testament, God’s fullest revelation, interpret the Old.

Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”

28 Now you,brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

Go back and read that a few times. Paul says there are two covenants. He says he is speaking allegorically, but it is not the covenants that are allegorical, but the metaphorical use of the mothers. His mention of two covenants is literal. There were two covenants with Abraham: one according to the flesh, which is national Israel, the other according to the promise, which is spiritual Israel. And that is precisely why Charles Hodge can say:

“It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one his natural descendants through Isaac, were constituted a commonwealth— an external community; by the other his spiritual descendants were constituted into a church, [invisible of course, since, at that time, the only formal organization was that of the law.] The parties to the former covenant, were God, and the nation; to the other, God, and his true people. The promises of the national covenant, were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant (i.e. the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, as reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant [the old] were circumcision, and obedience to the law; the conditions of the other were, and ever have been, faith in the Messiah, as ‘the seed of the woman,’ the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, [that is, the old covenant with the new] and the commonwealth founded on the one, with the church founded on the other. When Christ came, the commonwealth was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The church [now made visible] remained. There was no external covenant, nor promise of external ‘blessings, on condition of external rites, and subjection. There was a spiritual society, with spiritual promises, on condition of faith in Christ.” “The church is, therefore, in its essential nature, a company of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership.

Princeton Review, October 1853 (editorial comments by R. B. C. Howell The Covenants)

Unconfessional?

Does this leave me outside the bounds of orthodoxy? Hardly. The Bible is to be our test of orthodoxy and if a tradition is found to be outside the bounds of the Bible we should not be afraid to set it aside. Yet my view is not novel. It is not unconfessional. In contrast to the WCF’s view of the Covenant of Grace, the Baptist Brethren in London saw the consistent glory of the Covenant of Grace:

Chapter VII

Of God’s Covenant with Man

1._____ The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
( Luke 17:10; Job 35:7,8 )

2._____ Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
( Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 21; Romans 8:3; Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; John 6:44, 45; Psalms 110:3 )

3._____ This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
( Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11;6, 13; Romans 4:1, 2, &c.; Acts 4:12; John 8:56 )

Is WCF “Dispensational” ?

The Mosaic Covenant is not part of the Covenant of Grace. To say they are one and the same necessitates that God has worked differently throughout history, because those two covenants are fundamentally different. Patrick Ramsey has a helpful post here where he argues the same thing (though with a different conclusion). He demonstrates that one cannot affirm any kind of works principle in the Mosaic covenant while still maintaining its position in the Covenant of Grace. The “substance” or “essence” of the two are different and thus if one maintains that the Mosaic Covenant was a “dispensation” of the Covenant of Grace, they must admit that God’s work of salvation was different in “substance” or “essence” for Israel.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting observation in this regard. In his book “The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a Comparative Analysis” Guy Waters notes the following:

In October 2001, Steve Schlissel delivered a controversial address at Redeemer College (Ancaster, Ontario), “More than Before: The Necessity of Covenant Consciousness.”…In this address, Schlissel argued for a couple of things that would characterize his subsequent addresses and that would be paralleled in other FV pieces. First, Schlissel charged the Reformed tradition with succumbing to dispensationalism, to “fundamentalistic” and “baptistic” theologies. The Reformed, he argued, had unwittingly followed Luther’s bifurcation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In so doing, the Reformed had neglected the genius of their key biblical insight: covenant. Schlissel asked, then, “What’s new about the New Testament? Grace? NO. Faith? NO. Christ? NO. The new thing about the New Testament is Gentiles are incorporated into Israel. THAT IS IT.”

Schlissel then charges on to implement the works principle inherent in the Mosaic Covenant into the New Covenant by saying Christians must remain faithful to their covenant obligations – and he destroys the gospel in the process. But the interesting point is that he recognizes this inconsistency in popular covenant theology. He calls it dispensational because it does not consistently apply the Mosaic principles to the New Covenant.

For Further Reading:

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