Re: James White’s “Newness of the New Covenant”

In 2004 (part 2 2005), James White wrote The Newness Of The New Covenant: Better Covenant, Better Mediator, Better Sacrifice, Better Ministry, Better Hope, Better Promises in defense of credobaptism. He wrote from the perspective of one covenant of grace differently administered and sought to answer the question “Exactly what is the nature of the covenant in the blood of Christ (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 13:20), and how does it differ from other administrations of the covenant of grace?”

His answer was that the difference between the Old and the New is that only some of the members of the Old covenant were saved, while all of the members of the New covenant are.

[T]hat which the New Covenant provides in perfection the Old only provided in part or in picture… [W]here something is found in both covenants, it will be seen to be partial and incomplete in the Old, finished, total, and perfect in the New…

The Old Covenant was, by nature, breakable. Why? Because it did not, in and of itself, effect the change in the heart and mind of each member thereof that would cause them to “continue” therein…

While there were those who knew the Lord and followed his statutes, they were the remnant, not the norm…

All those with whom he makes this covenant experience what the remnant experienced under the old: true internal conversion resulting in a love for God’s law and a true relationship with him. Quite simply, there is no “remnant” in the New Covenant, and all those with whom God makes this covenant experience its fulfillment. This is why it is better, and hence proves the author’s apologetic presentation of the supremacy of Christ over the old ways…

The contrast drawn here between the old “faulted” covenant and the new faultless one is simple: the New Covenant brings salvific knowledge and relationship to all who are in it, “from the least to the greatest of them.”

…Reformed credobaptists have asserted that if this passage teaches that the New Covenant differs from the Old in the matter of the extensiveness of the work of grace in the lives of the members (i.e., the New Covenant is not a mixed covenant of regenerate and unregenerate, elect and non-elect), then the most needed element of the paedobaptist argument regarding the continuity of the covenants and the covenant sign is disrupted at its most vital point. The “continuity” of the Covenant of Grace is seen in the expansion of God’s work of grace, so that the New Covenant in the blood of the Son encompasses all of God’s elect, with the older administration’s ceremonies pointing forward to the perfection that would come in Christ…

We must agree that considered individually, each of the elements of the New Covenant listed in Heb. 8:10-12 can be found, in particular individuals in the Old Covenant…

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…

We are not saying there were none who experienced God’s grace under the Old Covenant, but that the Old Covenant, in and of itself, did not guarantee that those who partook of it were, in fact, heirs of grace. The newness of the New Covenant in the blood of Christ is found in the reality that the better mediator, better hope, better sacrifices, mean that all, from the least to the greatest of them, know the Lord savingly. This is its glory, for it reflects the power of the blood in which it is sealed. 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. While some in the Old Covenant experienced this, all in the New Covenant do so.

While White is correct that all in the New Covenant receive new hearts and the forgiveness of sins (they are saved) while only some members of the Old Covenant did, he is ambiguous as to how exactly those members of the Old Covenant were saved. Were they saved by the Old Covenant? Numerous statements by White seem to deny that.

[The author of Hebrews’] view of the New Covenant as “better” must be seen in light of the perfection of Christ’s work of mediation…

Is this ministry simply of the same kind as the ministry of the old priests, only, in some fashion, “more excellent”? Or is the point of the passage that the Messiah’s ministry, the covenant in his blood, and the promises upon which the covenant stands – all these things are substantially different, better, than that which came before?…

Surely, at this point there can be no argument that the betterness of the sacrifice of Christ is qualitatively superior to that of the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant. His death is not just more effective or in some fashion greater than the sacrifice of a lamb or a bull. That sacrifice differs on a fundamental, foundational level. It is better by nature and definition...

As a result of the permanence of his priestly position, Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save

Christ is the mediator of a better covenant, based upon better sacrifices, with a more excellent ministry, based upon better promises, which include, he will later assert, the very promise of the eternal inheritance for those in the New Covenant (9:15)…

What the Old Covenant had only pictured and hinted at, but failed to produce in them, God fulfills in the better covenant with the better sacrifices and better promises and better mediator…

These repetitive sacrifices lack the power or ability to take away sins…

The text presents an apologetic argument that unlike the Old Covenant, where “they did not continue in My covenant” (v. 9), the New Covenant presents a perfect, full work of God which includes the internal renovation of the heart, salvific knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of sins…

We must further note that the contrast in Heb. 10 is between the repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which could never take away sins, and the singular sacrifice of the New, which not only can but in reality does do so for those who are in the covenant (Heb. 10:10-18)!

There appears to be some unresolved tension in White’s argument. On the one hand, he argues that the New covenant is qualitatively better than the Old because it does what the Old could not: give a new heart and take away sins. Yet on the other hand he argues that the difference is quantitative because the Old covenant did give a new heart and take away sins, just not for all in the covenant (“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”).

I believe the logic of White’s argumentation throughout the two essays requires him to modify his conclusion. If Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means simply that more members of the covenant are saved, does that mean that some members of the Old covenant were saved apart from his mediation and sacrifice? On the other hand, if Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means “Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save” then perhaps those in the Old Covenant who were in fact saved were saved by Christ’s better New covenant. Perhaps the “Newness of the New Covenant” is that it is able to save! As White himself says

The writer plainly sees in these words a prophetic proclamation of what Christ, the one high priest, would accomplish through his better sacrifice so as to initiate a better covenant based upon better promises leading to a better hope. The singular offering of Christ (Heb. 7:27) and the acceptance of that offering pictured in his entrance into the Holy Place and his being seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1) has made it possible for God to be merciful to the iniquities of those for whom the High Priest now intercedes (Heb. 7:24-35).

Note Owen’s observation on the same text.

Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended… If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large… [T]herefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition… The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.

Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, p. 187-8, 241

Aquinas’ Retroactive New Covenant

I have previously shown at length how very similar Augustine’s understanding of the New and Old Covenants is to 1689 Federalism. He limits the Old Covenant to temporal, earthly promises and argues that OT saints were saved by the New Covenant.

[T]he happy persons, who even in that early age [the Old Testament] were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God

Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist

Aquinas followed Augustine on this point, citing him several times in Summa Theologica I-II, 106-107 (Old “Law” = Old Covenant; New “Law” = New Covenant).

[T]he Old Law, which was given to men who were imperfect, that is, who had not yet received spiritual grace, was called the “law of fear,” inasmuch as it induced men to observe its commandments by threatening them with penalties; and is spoken of as containing temporal promises…

the New Law which derives its pre-eminence from the spiritual grace instilled into our hearts, is called the “Law of love”: and it is described as containing spiritual and eternal promises…

although the Old Law contained precepts of charity, nevertheless it did not confer the Holy Ghost…

the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ…

Nevertheless there were some in the state of the Old Testament who, having charity and the grace of the Holy Ghost, looked chiefly to spiritual and eternal promises: and in this respect they belonged to the New Law…

As to those under the Old Testament who through faith were acceptable to God, in this respect they belonged to the New Testament: for they were not justified except through faith in Christ, Who is the Author of the New Testament…

No man ever had the grace of the Holy Ghost except through faith in Christ either explicit or implicit: and by faith in Christ man belongs to the New Testament. Consequently whoever had the law of grace instilled into them belonged to the New Testament…

at all times there have been some persons belonging to the New Testament, as stated above.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically quotes Aquinas on this point (1964).

There were . . . under the regimen of the Old Covenant, people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit and longed above all for the spiritual and eternal promises by which they were associated with the New Law… [E]ven though the Old Law prescribed charity, it did not give the Holy Spirit, through whom “God’s charity has been poured into our hearts.

I mention all of this simply to re-iterate the historicity of the concept. It is not an idea invented by baptists in response to paedobaptism. It is drawn from Scripture itself and has been recognized by various traditions for a very long time.