“Everlasting” and “Forever”

People will sometimes argue that the Abrahamic Covenant must be the Covenant of Grace because Scripture refers to it as “everlasting.”

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.

Genesis 17:7-8

Of course, Dispensationalists also appeal to the same passage to argue that Abraham’s carnal offspring have claim to the land of Canaan forever into eternity. However, the word is also used to described various aspects of the Old Covenant that the New Testament teaches have ended.

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.

Exodus 27:20-21

“For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.

Exodus 28:40-43

Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.

Exodus 29:8-9

When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.

Exodus 30:20-21

You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them, and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.”

Exodus 40:14-15

He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Leviticus 16:33-34

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

Numbers 25:10-13

Scripture teaches that this priesthood and its functions has in fact ceased, despite the language of “everlasting,” “forever,” and “perpetual.”

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well… For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God… In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 7:11-12, 18-19; 8:13

Jews have appealed to the above passages to argue that Old Covenant ceremonies continue to be obligatory today. Bullinger replied

But however the Jews do even at this day abide in their wilful stubbornness, the Lord did from heaven declare openly enough, that he is no longer delighted with the ceremonial rites, because he destroyed all the instruments belonging to that ancient kind of worship; and made the very shop of that old religion, I meant the temple and city of Hierusalem, level with the ground…

It is a very slender, or rather no defence at all for the Jews to allege the words in the law, which are many times rehearsed, where the ceremonies are described: “Ye shall keep it for an everlasting ordinance.” For in this sense everlasting is taken for long lasting and unchangeable, so far forth as it hath respect unto the will or authority of mankind. For the Lord did with threatening of grievous punishments forbid that mankind’s unadvisedness should change or abrogate the holy ceremonies. And yet, since he did ordain those ceremonies until the time of amendment, he doth neither sin, nor yet incur the crime of unconstancy, when he doth change or take away the ceremonies according to the determinate purpose which he intended from the beginning.

The Decades of Henry Bullinger, Volume 8, 261-2

Commenting on Hebrews 7:24 “but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever,” John Owen said

And this “for ever” answers unto the “for ever” under the law, each of them being commensurate unto the dispensation of that covenant which they do respect; for absolute eternity belongs not unto these things. The “for ever” of the old testament was the duration of the dispensation of the old covenant. And this “for ever” respects the new covenant, which is to continue unto the consummation of all things, no change therein being any way intimated or promised, or consistent with the wisdom and faithfulness of God; all which were otherwise under the law.

The point is that “everlasting,” “forever,” “perpetual” must be understood in context. The word alone cannot decide the matter. The Covenant of Circumcision cannot be said to be the Covenant of Grace (continuing in force today) because it is called everlasting any more than the Phinehastic Covenant can be. Nehemiah Coxe said

Now it is evident that they have for many ages been disinherited of it [the land of Canaan – recall Gen 17:8]. But the solution to this doubt will be easy to him who consults the use of these terms in other texts, and the necessary restriction of their sense when applied to the state or interests of Abraham’s seed in the land of Canaan. For the priesthood of Levi is called an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13) and the gates of the temple, everlasting doors (Psalm 24:5). This is the same sense that Canaan is said to be an everlasting inheritance. No more is intended than the continuance of these for a long time, that is, throughout the Old Testament economy until the days of the Messiah, commonly spoken of by the Jews under the notion of the world to come. In this a new state of things was to be expected when their old covenant right and privilege was to expire, its proper end and design being fully accomplished.

87

Its description as “everlasting” was also applied to other temporary institutions. The word translated “everlasting” in Genesis 17:8, literally means, “until the distant future.” Often it does signify forever and ever (Deut. 33:27; Ps. 90:2), but not always. Context must determine its duration. Scripture uses this very word to describe the duration of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:34) and of the Aaronic priesthood (Exod. 29:28, 40:15). Scripture indicates explicitly that these other old covenant institutions terminate with the coming of Messiah. His coming is their vanishing point, the end of the age. Similarly, in Genesis 17:8, עולם signifies “until the distant future, throughout the entire era of Hebrew Israel’s theocracy.” That era lasted a very long time, some fifteen-hundred years, until the promised Messiah came to institute the new covenant.

Greg Nichols. Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants. Pelham: Solid Ground Books, 2011. pp. 191-192.

The Covenant of Circumcision was not the Covenant of Grace. It consisted of historia salutis promises, not ordo salutis promises. And because it consisted of historia salutis promises, it is now ended, having been fulfilled.

Podcast: Responding to Reformed Forum on 2LBC 8.6 @ The Particular Baptist

Daniel Vincent and Sean Cheetham at the Particular Baptist Podcast invited me on to respond to an episode of Reformed Forum from a few months ago. In that episode, titled Typology and Covenant Membership, Jeremy Boothby argued that the author of Hebrews’ particular understanding of typology necessarily entails that the Old Covenant was (an administration of) the Covenant of Grace. He said he could not understand how baptists could reject WCF 7.5-6 but affirm 8.6 and asked for those who hold to 1689 Federalism to explain. So that was our primary goal in this episode. It has become a recurring objection so I’m glad I had the opportunity to address it. The episode went really long (which should not surprise readers of this blog) but Daniel and Sean graciously let me ramble on to make my point. I hope you find it useful. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Here are my notes/outline for the show, if it helps.

Related Posts and Mentioned Posts:

Re: Gaffin on Hebrews 8

This is an old video (2012), but I watched it again recently.

At 50:00 Dr. Gaffin argues that Jer 31/Heb 8 is making a redemptive historical/historia salutis point “using ordo salutis language.”

No, rather, the text makes an ordo salutis point with historia salutis implications. The New Covenant saves. Therefore the Old Covenant, which did not save and which merely pointed forward to the New Covenant, is obsolete.

Gaffin points to the experience of Abraham, Moses, and David in order to argue that ordo salutis benefits, namely regeneration, were provided by the Old Covenant. However, this is an invalid argument. The conclusion that the Old Covenant includes ordo salutis promises/benefits – including all those listed in Heb 8 – does not follow from the premise that OT saints were regenerate. I believe a correct exegesis of Heb 8 leads to the minor premise that the ordo salutis benefits are unique to the New Covenant (“better promises,” “not like the Old Covenant”).

P1 OT saints were regenerate
P2 The New Covenant alone regenerates
C OT saints were regenerated by the New Covenant

Before one objects that this is fanciful baptist eisegesis, consider that Gaffin said

The ordo salutis reality… Abraham being a man of faith, a regenerate person of faith which is dependent upon the work of Christ still to come in the future for its efficacy.

Bucey likewise said

[T]he grace that is administered to these Old Testament saints – really what they’re receiving are the same spiritual benefits the same grace the same substantial grace coming from the same work of Christ – they’re just receiving it in anticipation of the work he would come to do.

And in a separate episode, Tipton said

Even prior to His advent, His incarnation, His life and death and resurrection, prior to that the virtue, benefits, and efficacy of his atoning sacrifice and resurrection and ascension are retrospectively applied to saints in the Old Testament order by the supernatural agency of the Spirit.

What the author of Hebrews argues at great length is that this work of Christ and the benefits it entails are exclusive to the New Covenant. According to the author of Hebrews, the New Covenant is different from the Old Covenant in that it regenerates and justifies (8:6-12). The author of Hebrews contrasts the blood of the Old Covenant (bulls and goats) with the blood of the New Covenant (Christ). He argues there is an ordo salutis difference between the two, not merely an historia salutis difference. “[I]t is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4) “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (9:15) As Owen has correctly remarked

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.

Calvin was confronted with the truth of this logic in his effort to exegete Hebrews 8, particularly verse 10. He concluded

[W]hatever spiritual gifts the fathers obtained, they were accidental as it were to their age; for it was necessary for them to direct their eyes to Christ in order to become possessed of them… There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.

This was actually the dominant view (as far as I can tell) prior to the reformation. It was Augustine’s view, echoed in Aquinas (who is quoted in Catholic Catechism 1964 on this point). See Joshua Moon’s “An ‘Augustinian’ Reading of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Dialogue with the Christian Tradition.” Many others, such as John Frame and Michael Horton, have also recognized this truth.

Once we have this correct foundation, then we can discuss how types relate to OT saints’ understanding of and belief in the gospel, as well as how we are to understand the issue of apostasy and the warning passages.

Bavinck: Visible/Invisible Church a Matter of Perspective

In many previous posts we have shown how certain paedobaptists (see links at end) have correctly understood that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is a matter of perspective: our fallible perspective vs God’s infallible perspective. As Bannerman noted, infant baptism is based upon the belief that professors and their children are members of the church in God’s eyes. He explains how infant baptism is rooted in a belief that the children of professors, as well as unregenerate professors, are members of the covenant in God’s eyes (see here for a collection of reformed resources on this point). But every time reformed theologians wrestle seriously with Roman Catholicism’s claims regarding the church, they resort to the correct conclusion that the visible/invisible distinction is a matter of perspective: only true believers are members of the church, though we mistakenly think that unbelievers are at times.

Baptists believed that the church is the body of Christ, those united to Christ in faith, the called elect, the members of the New Covenant. When paedobaptists object by pointing out that baptists don’t have regeneration goggles because unbelievers are baptized members of baptist churches, they fail to properly understand the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Yes, we baptize and admit to church membership based upon profession and that profession could be false. But membership in a local church is merely a human perspective of the church. The fact that we mistakenly consider a false professor to be a true believer does not mean the false professor is a member of the church – it just means we think they are.

Here is how Bavinck articulated that biblical understanding.

The word קָהָל (qāhāl), ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia), by virtue of its derivation from verbs that mean “to call together,” already denotes a gathering of people who come together for some purpose, especially a political or religious purpose, or, even if at a given moment they have not come together, are nevertheless mutually united for such a purpose. Under the Old Testament dispensation Israel was the people that had been called together and convened for God’s service. In the New Testament, the people of Israel have been replaced by the church of Christ, which is now the “holy nation, the chosen race, the royal priesthood” of God. The word “church” (kirk, kerk, kirche, chiesa), used to translate ἐκκλησια, does not express as clearly as the original this character of the church of Christ. It is probably derived from κυριακη (kyriakē; completed by οἰκια [oikia, house] being understood) or κυριακον (kyriakon; completed by οἰκον [oikon, house] being understood) and hence originally meant, not the congregation itself, but its place of assembly, the church building. Today we use the word in the sense of the building or of the worship service (“church starts at 10:00 a.m.”) or of the organized group of congregations (the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Church). In the word “church” the meaning of the New Testament word ἐκκλησια has been obscured. In certain periods the sense that “church” is the name for “the people of God” has almost totally eroded…

Now there is no doubt that according to Scripture the characteristic essence of the church lies in the fact that it is the people of God. For the church is a realization of election, and the latter is election in Christ to calling, Justification, and glorification (Rom. 8:28), to being conformed to the image of God’s Son (8:29), to holiness and blessedness (Eph. 1:4ff.). The blessings granted to the church are primarily internal and spiritual in character and consist in calling and regeneration, in faith and Justification, in sanctification and glorification. They are the goods of the kingdom of heaven, benefits of the covenant of grace, promises for this life and, above all, for the life to come.

On these grounds, the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18), the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:32; Rev. 19:7; 21:2), the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them (John 10), the building, the temple, the house of God (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:5), built up out of living stones (1 Pet. 2:5) on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets (1 Cor. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:16–17; Eph. 2:20–22; Rev. 21:2–4), the people, the possession, the Israel of God (Rom. 9:25; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10; 1 Pet. 2:9–10). The members of the church are called branches of the vine (John 15), living stones (1 Pet. 2:5), the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. By contrast, those who are not really such are viewed in Scripture as chaff (Matt. 3:12), weeds among the wheat (13:25, 38), bad fish in the net (13:47), people without a wedding garment at the wedding (22:11), called but not chosen (22:14), bad branches in the vine (John 15:2), non-Israel though descended from Israel (Rom. 2:28; 9:6), evildoers who have to be put away (1 Cor. 5:2), vessels of dishonor (2 Tim. 2:20), such “who went out from us because they were not of us” (1 John 2:19), and so forth. All this makes it incontrovertible that in its essence the church is a gathering of true believers. Those who do not have an authentic faith may externally belong to the church; they do not make up its essential character. Though they are in the church, they are not the church

Up to this point the meaning of the term “church” is plain and clear. But now we encounter two difficulties. The first consists in the fact that this scriptural concept of the church is applied to concrete, historically existing distinct groups of persons, in which there are always unbelievers as well. In the Old Testament, the entire nation was called the people of God, although far from everything that was called Israel was of Israel. In the churches of the New Testament, though to a much lesser extent, there was also chaff amid the grain and weeds among the wheat. And after the apostolic period, though the churches over and over became worldly, corrupt, and divided, we still call all of them churches. Theology, like Scripture, has at all times acknowledged this fact and, following Scripture, consistently stated that the basic nature of the church was determined by believers, not unbelievers. Augustine illustrated the presence of unbelievers in the church with the scriptural image of chaff and grain, or with that of body and soul, the outer and the inner person, bad “humors” in the body: in the body of Christ unbelievers are a kind of “bad humors.”111 Scholastic and Roman Catholic theologians spoke in similar terms. Bellarmine, for example, though he attempted to show that unbelievers are also members of the church, did not get beyond asserting that they are members “in some fashion”; they only belong to the body, not to the soul of the church. The good are the interior part of the church, the bad are the exterior part; unbelievers are “dead” or “arid” members, who are bound to the church only “by an external connection”; they belong to the kingdom of Christ as far as their profession of faith is concerned, but to the realm of the devil so far as it concerns their perverse lifestyle. They are children of the family on account of the form of their piety, but strangers on account of their loss of virtues. While there may not be two churches, there are in fact two parties in the church.113 And the Roman Catechism says that in the church militant there are two kinds of people, and that according to Scripture there are bad fish in the net and weeds on the field and chaff on the threshing floor, foolish virgins among the wise and unclean animals in the ark. In theory, this is not very different from the doctrine of the Reformation, but practically, things in the church looked very different toward the end of the Middle Ages. And Rome also consistently fosters the idea that external membership, a historical faith, observance of the commandments of the church, and submission to the pope constitute the essence of the church.

Rising up against this view, the Reformation posited the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Of nominal Christians Augustine had already stated that though they seem to be inside, they are separated from it by an invisible bond of love. Actually Rome cannot object to this distinction and does in fact itself accept it inasmuch as it distinguishes two kinds of people, two parties, in the church. Bellarmine speaks of “hidden unbelievers,”116 and Mohler praises Luther when he conceives of the church as a communion of saints and says that believers, the invisible ones, are the bearers of the visible church. But the distinction between the visible and the invisible church can be variously construed.118 The majority of these views, however, are to be rejected or at least do not come up for discussion in dogmatics. The church cannot be called invisible because Christ, the church triumphant, and the church that will be completed at the end of the ages cannot now be observed; nor can the church be called invisible because the church on earth cannot be seen by us in many places and countries, or goes into hiding in times of persecution, or is sometimes deprived of the ministry of the Word and sacraments. The distinction between the visible and invisible church can only be applied to the church militant and then means that the church is invisible with respect to its spiritual dimension and its true members. In the case of Lutherans and the Reformed, these two meanings have fused and cannot be separated from each other. The church is an object of faith. The internal faith of the heart, regeneration, true conversion, hidden communion with Christ (and so forth) are spiritual goods that cannot be observed by the natural eye and nevertheless give to the church its true character (forma). No human being has received from God the infallible standard by which one can judge someone else’s spiritual life. “The church makes no judgment concerning the most private things.” The Lord alone knows those who are his. Thus it is possible—and in the Christian church has always been a fact—that there was chaff amid the wheat and there were hypocrites hidden among true believers. The word “church,” used with reference to the militant church, the gathering of believers on earth, therefore, always and among all Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, has a metaphorical sense. It is so called, not in terms of the unbelievers who exist in it, but in terms of the believers, who constitute the essential component of it and determine its nature. The whole is called after the part. A church is and remains the gathered company of true Christ-believers...

[E]xternal membership, calling, and baptism are no proof of genuine faith. Many are called who are not chosen. Many are baptized who do not believe. Not all are Israel who are of Israel… [T]he church is conceived of as a gathering of believers. For it is genuine faith that saves persons and receives the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. While that faith is a matter of the heart, it does not remain within a person but manifests itself outwardly in a person’s witness and walk (Rom. 10:10), and witness and walk are the signs of the internal faith of the heart (Matt. 7:17; 10:32; 1 John 4:2). Granted, a person’s faith and witness are also often far from always in agreement. In the case of the children of believers, for example, there is faith that is not manifested in deeds, a confession that consists in saying “Lord, Lord” and is not born of true faith. Still, the advantage of defining the church as the gathering of believers over its description as the gathering of the called and the baptized is that it maintains precisely that on which everything depends, both for the individual and the whole church. Our being called and baptized is not decisive, for those who believe and are baptized will be saved, and, conversely, those who do not believe, even though they were called and baptized, will be condemned (Mark 16:16)…

What follows from all this is that we are limited to noting people’s witness and walk, and we neither can nor may judge their hearts. Unbelievers, therefore, no more constitute the essence of the visible church than of the invisible church. In neither of these respects do they belong to the church, even though we lack the right and the authority to separate them from believers and to cast them out. Even stronger: we can also say that the old Adam that still survives in believers does not belong to the church. This is not to agree with Schleiermacher when he locates the essence of the church in the operations of the Holy Spirit, for the church is not a gathering of operations but of persons. It is people who have been regenerated and brought to faith by the Holy Spirit, who as such, as new persons, constitute the essence of the church. Still, the church is a gathering of believers, and everything that does not arise out of true faith but from the old Adam does not belong to the church and will one day be cast out. For this reason the visible and the invisible church are two sides of one and the same church. The same believers are viewed in the one case from the perspective of the faith that dwells in their heart and is only known with certainty to God; and in the other case they are viewed from the perspective of their witness and life, the side that is turned toward us and can be observed by us. Because the church on earth is in process of becoming, these two sides are never—not even in the purest church—identical. There are always unbelievers within and believers outside the church. Many wolves are within and many sheep are outside the sheepfold. The latter occurred in the Old Testament, for example, in the case of Naaman the Syrian and is still true today of all who for one reason or another live outside the fellowship of organized (“instituted”) churches and yet have true faith. But all this in no way detracts from the fact that the essence of the church consists in believers alone.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 296–313. This full section is available online.

Related Posts:

Promise, Law, Faith – A Review Article (JIRBS 20)

The 2020 edition of the Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies has just been published. It includes a lengthy (46 page) review of T. David Gordon’s “Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians.” The review incorporates various points I have made on this blog, builds upon them, and adds to them. Readers of this blog will most likely find it worth reading.

It also includes a brief review of Richard P. Belcher Jr.’s new book on covenant theology by Sam Renihan.

The Reformed Baptist Academic Press website is undergoing construction so the journal is not available through the site currently. Instead, you have two options:

  • Email rb@rbap.net to order with name, address, phone number, quantity. $10 plus s/h. Paid via Paypal.
  • Amazon

There are a couple of things I came across after writing the review that I would have added. On page 88 I note the NET translation of Gal. 3:18. I should have also noted the CSB translation. Also, in fn29 I would add Aquinas’ statements on the New Covenant.

If you read the review, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Aquinas’ Distinction Between Membership in the New Covenant and the era of the New Covenant

I have previously mentioned Joshua Moon’s dissertation “Jeremiah’s New Covenant: An Augustinian Reading.” I do not agree with everything he has to say, but I highly recommend reading it (PDF) as he explains Augustine’s view of Jeremiah 31, as well as how that Augustinian reading was held down through church history up until the Reformation. Below is an excerpt (66-74 PDF) of his account of Aquinas’ Augustinian reading of Jeremiah 31 (see my previous Aquinas’ Retroactive New Covenant).


In summary form the lex nova for Thomas is the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.64 Thomas identifies the lex nova with the Law of the novum testamentum (‘lex nova est lex novi testamenti’), and defines the new law as the grace of the Holy Spirit:

‘Each thing appears to be that which is foremost in it,’ as the Philosopher states (Ethic., ix). That which is foremost in the Law of the novum testamentum, and in which all its power consists, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently the lex nova is principally the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.65

To establish his position he cites Jer 31:31,33, followed by two citations of Augustine from the De spiritu, the second of which reads: ‘What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of his Holy Spirit?’ From Augustine, Thomas reads the contrast in Jer 31 as between an old law without further power, and the ‘new’ work of the Spirit in those who believe.

The consequences of this for Jer 31 are then spelled out by an objection now somewhat familiar: what of those prior to the nova lex? If the new law is the Spirit’s work by which people are made friends of God, and if the ancient faithful had that Spirit’s work, then you have the novum testamentum in the era of the vetus. Thus, the objection runs, the new law cannot be defined this way:

The Law of the Gospel is proper to those who are in the state of the novum testamentum. But the Law that is inscribed [on the heart] is common both to those who are in the novum testamentum and those who are in the vetus testamentum. For it is said in Wisdom 7[:27]: ‘Divine wisdom conveys herself through the nations into holy souls; she establishes the friends of God and the prophets.’ Therefore the lex nova is not the Law inscribed.66

Thomas answers by appeal to an implicit distinction between membership in the novum testamentum and the ‘state (or era) of the novum testamentum:

No one ever possessed the grace of the Holy Spirit except through faith in Christ, explicit or implicit. Through faith in Christ a man belongs to the novum testamentum. Thus whoever had the Law of grace infused, accordingly belonged to the novum testamentum

At first glance it does not appear that Thomas answers the objection. He solves the dilemma by agreeing that there have always been those who had the Law of grace and belonged to the novum testamentum. The implicit point, however, is that Thomas does not see ‘belonging to the novum testamentum’ as the same as being in the statu novi testamenti – otherwise the reply would not at all address the objection. Thomas thus drives a distinction between two realities, that of the era of the Gospel or the statu novi testamenti, and that of
membership within the novum testamentum. And Jer 31:33-34 is addressed to the latter. Thus, in article 4 of the same question he asserts that the state of the new law succeeds the state of the old law (‘successit enim status novae legis statui veteris legis’), a claim he finds consistent with the novum testamentum existing during the state of the old law.

Matthew Levering summarizes the distinction being made this way: ‘The state of the new law begins after the Incarnation, while the new law itself, as the grace of the Holy Spirit, is found in all places and times.’68 Or more fully is Colman O’Neill:

the new law exists as the mystery of salvation at work in the world from the time of the restoration of man to grace. Yet, though the new law thus transcends historical periods, the state of the new law does not. For the state of the new law is precisely that third state of revelation and faith which was initiated in the Incarnation and in the mysteries of Christ.69

That Thomas owes this position to Augustine is clear: Augustine is cited no fewer than 8 times in answer to this one question. One can speak two different ways of the vetus and novum testamentum (or lex): either to a ‘state’ or era, or with respect to the thing itself. If the former, then one can speak of the economical differences. But if the latter, then any view of temporal succession is impossible. And Jeremiah is speaking of the latter. The lex nova, spoken of in Jer 31:33-34, is available throughout all ages and without the possession of it, one’s happiness (proper end) is unattainable – for that which is outside of a person cannot justify. The virtue of being just before God cannot be acquired unless given by God, and clearly those faithful of the ancient era were just. Thus ‘in all times there have been some belonging to the novum testamentum’, even if the statu novi testamenti awaited the coming of Christ.70

This point is made concrete in Thomas’ treatment of David in Psalm 51 (Vg. 50) and Thomas’ view of David as having the Holy Spirit (i.e. the lex nova):

The reason for this manifestation [of guilt (culpa) being wiped clean] is a divine mercy; for the manifestation of righteousness (iustis) is useful so that we do not presume on his righteousness (iustitia). For if David sins – after all of his victories, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, after all his familiarity with God and prophecy – how much more ought we to fear how weak and sinful we are?71

If Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant is a prophecy of the lex nova, which is contained fundamentally in the giving of the Holy Spirit, then David is here explicitly counted as a member of the new covenant. The exhortation even hinges upon an a fortiori privileging of the place of David: if even David can sin, how much more should we fear? There is only one way by which anyone is made right with God, and that is through the novum testamentum or the lex nova, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to those who believe. This is true for Augustine and Thomas regardless of era, and this right standing before God is the substance of Jeremiah’s new covenant.72

Yes, Masks Are a Conscience Issue

About a week ago a pastor named Erik Raymond wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition titled Are Masks a Conscience Issue? Regretfully, I think the article is a bit confusing (and perhaps confused).

Argument A

When most people say that wearing or not wearing a mask in response to COVID-19 and various governors’ Executive Orders (not laws) is a matter of conscience, what they mean is that it is not a black and white issue that Scripture speaks to directly. It is a “gray area” that requires additional information not found in Scripture over which people may disagree. Therefore Christians may disagree with one another as to whether or not God requires them to wear a mask. “[C]onscience is the application of what [one] knows both about God’s law and about [oneself] to a particular case.” This 4-min video is a helpful presentation of that point.

Let’s call this Conscience Argument A: Whether or not God requires one to wear a mask is a matter best left to individuals to decide for themselves.

Argument B

What is confusing about Raymond’s piece is that he is not responding to that argument. He is arguing against some other appeal to conscience on the mask issue. He does not provide any references, so it is hard to tell if he has accurately understood whoever he is arguing against or if he has just misunderstood the appeal to conscience on this point. What he is responding to is an individual who says their conscience forbids them from wearing a mask. “While I’ve not met anyone who enjoys wearing a mask, I’ve come across many who do not. Some say they cannot as a result of their conscience.” He refers to it as “the tenuous position that wearing a mask is a sin.”

Conscience Argument B: I cannot wear a mask because it violates my conscience.

Against Argument B, Raymond says

When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23). But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask. When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23). But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask… [T]he objection to masks is not fundamentally a conscience issue. It may be a health or a political objection, but it’s not fundamentally a moral objection supported by a Christian understanding of conscience.

I agree with Raymond’s refutation of Argument B, but I don’t think there are many people making that argument. His points #1 and #2 are irrelevant to Argument A. I encourage you to re-read Raymond’s article.

His point #3 is aimed at Argument B, but some parts of it would also apply to Argument A, so let’s take a closer look.

Submission to Authorities

Submission to the Authorities (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17) Christians are commanded to submit to and honor the governing authorities. This is in the Bible because it’s not something we’d naturally want to do. Imperfect people run governments. The authorities at the time of Paul and Peter were notoriously evil. Nevertheless, such submission is the will of God for his people (1 Pet. 2:15). Failing to do so is a sin against God. Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands. It’s hard to argue that masks fall into this category reasonably.

This is a common argument that some pastors make, but I don’t think it’s what those passages of Scripture teach. I do not believe it is true that “Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands.” Most theologians recognize that any divine requirement to obey civil rulers is limited to when that ruler is functioning within his proper, limited jurisdiction – a question best left to the individual conscience to determine.

Additionally, I think there is good reason to believe that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 command us to be subject to the powers that be, rather than simply to obey the powers that be. Note Louis W. Hensler III’s point in his excellent essay “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond” (Regent University Law Review).

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

Samuel Waldron makes the same point.

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power].

“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished

I do not believe that Scripture warrants a pastor telling his congregation that they are sinning if they do not wear a mask when a Governor has issued an Executive Order under the Emergency Powers.

This 2 minute clip from Sam Waldron is helpful. In addition, see his 3 part series The Christian’s Relationship to Civil Authority.

Love for Neighbor

Love for Neighbor (Matt. 22:39) In our churches, there are various levels of concern about COVID-19. Some have lost friends and family members to the virus. For many wearing a mask is one reasonable way to love other people and protect them. It would be unloving to minimize or ignore their concerns, especially in light of the evolving data and heightened case numbers. Christian love requires a willingness to follow Jesus and set ourselves aside. Christians should be eager to do this.

Here Raymond simply betrays his own opinion of the science and politics. He cannot bind others with his opinion on those points. Yes, we should love our neighbors and should not unnecessarily cause them harm. But whether or not wearing a mask is a way to protect others from harm is a disputed point. Furthermore, love for neighbor and setting ourselves aside is a two-way street. It would be unloving to minimize or ignore the concerns of those who choose not to wear a mask just as it would be unloving to minimize or ignore the concerns of those who do wear a mask. As with much of life, there is no obvious, one-size-fits-all answer to how these different people may live and assemble together, but “Christians should be eager to do this.” A proper understanding of Argument A would help Raymond better understand this point.

Wisdom Toward Outsiders

Wisdom Toward Outsiders (Col. 4:5) It’s saddening to read of some churches who disregard safety standards and then become super-spreaders for the virus. This harms the testimony of the church in the community. Christians should be concerned with reasonable efforts to preserve and promote the gospel. At this moment, failing to wear a mask doesn’t seem wise.

Once again, Raymond betrays his own opinion of the science and politics of COVID – opinions that he cannot bind other Christians with. Following Col 4:5, Raymond even says it’s a matter of wisdom. How then can he possibly place this point under the heading that not wearing a mask “causes disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture”? Once again, a proper understanding of Argument A would really help Raymond better understand and apply Col. 4:5, which says “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” After all, an argument could be made that dissenting from the COVID narrative is quite wise.

Submission to the Elders

Submission to the Elders (Heb. 13:17) God requires church members to submit to their elders. Failing to do so is a sin against God. There’s obviously a bevy of caveats here, but in this conversation, if the elders believe it’s right to submit to the government by wearing a mask, then there’s not a provision for the conscience to disregard them. There may certainly be principled disagreement, but there is no conscience clause that allows a perpetual lack of submission. The solution would be to either submit to the leadership of the church or find a church where they could worship according to their convictions and joyfully submit to the elders of that church.

Heb. 13:17 says “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” I do think this is a more valid point by Raymond. Our elders do possess spiritual authority that we must obey. But note carefully the rest of the verse “…for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Wearing or not wearing a mask is not itself a danger to one’s soul, so hopefully elders will be careful about wielding the hammer of their spiritual authority on the question of masks. (Of course, if those elders misinterpret Romans 13 and believe it is sinful to disobey a governor, then they would see the matter as a spiritual one. In that instance, I would encourage them to reconsider their interpretation of the passage.)

Conclusion

In my opinion, Raymond’s article confuses the issue. Wearing masks is a gray issue that is best left up to individual Christians to determine whether or not the law of God requires it.

Further Reading

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.