Saturday, December 5, 2015

Covenants Defined Part VIII - An Analysis of the New Covenant


For reference, here are the four promises mentioned in Jeremiah again:
  1. I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts (Jer 31:33, Heb 8:10).
  2. I shall be their God, and they shall be My people (Jer 31:33, Heb 8:10).
  3. They shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD”: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest (Jer 31:34, Heb 8:11)
  4. I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer 31:34, Rom 11:27, Heb 8:12).
The first thing that jumps out is that this covenant clocks in at a puny 145 words (including historic preamble) which is remarkably abbreviated from what you’d normally expect. Sinai had a huge list of requirements that took up chapters of the Bible and was inaugurated over the course of days, but here we’re given only a quick mention in one of the prophetic books before moving on to Nebuchadnezzar.
I’m forced to conclude from this that the people were already primed for understanding the new covenant and needed only a small confirmation to grasp it, which means any explanation we have ought to be similarly straightforward and easy to understand. That’s why, as far as I can tell, there are two ways to understand this passage: either the covenant is predominately concerned about personal salvation (a position generally held by Baptists), or it concerns a new priesthood (generally held by Presbyterians).


The Subjective View


Unlike the mixed multitude in the Old Covenant who proved unfaithful at every turn, the four promises which compose the New Covenant establish a people who remain eternally faithful to God no matter what. The easiest way to see this is to work backwards through the text, so we’ll start with the last promise first.
  1. Promise four is an explicit, easy to understand statement about how God will forgive the iniquity of those who are within the covenant. It is, in other words, justification. And because we know that justification is a gift given only to the elect, it must be the case that only the elect are in mind in regarding the other three promises.
  2. The third promise is regeneration, another work of grace exclusive to the elect. Now, thanks to this new covenant, God will cause His people to be born again into a living hope, just as it says in John 6:44-45, “No man can come to Me, unless the Father who has sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. As it is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall be all taught by God.’ Every man therefore who has heard, and has learned of the Father, comes to Me.”
  3. Promise two concerns what the New Testament calls adoption—although it’s couched in Old Testament terminology because until Christ the Fatherhood of God is not revealed. This promise is the outworking of forgiveness found in promise four; it’s the direct result of receiving the pronouncement of ‘not guilty’ from God, and it teaches us that at the moment of faith the elect are not only forgiven but reconciled, and drawn into a right relationship with God. As it says in Rev 21:7, “He that overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he shall be My son.”
  4. Finally, the first promise regards our sanctification and growing in grace. After we have been justified, adopted, and regenerated we are made progressively more holy as we keep the law in love. We abide in Him and His revelation, walking willingly with Him in joyful obedience.
Together these four promises encompass all of salvation, their sum and substance is that in the New Covenant God is going to cause His elect to obey His law, become born again, become His people, and be forgiven. And because we know that justification and regeneration are reserved for the elect, it must be the case that the entirety of the new covenant is reserved for, and concerns, the salvation of the elect.

For clarity’s sake, take a look at the chart below, which lists all the explicit covenants in the Bible and how I think they’re related. 

On the left side are the direct promises of Christ (“Seed”) and what they teach us about Him, colored in red. In the middle are the types and shadows that teach us something about Christ but are not explicitly about Him, things like the sacrificial system, the Passover, or the priests. These are colored green. On the right, colored purple, are the things that endure and teach us about our need for a savior. So while strictly speaking the covenant at Sinai was about delivering the Ten Commandments which are the enduring moral laws, it also established the civil and ceremonial laws peculiar to the Jewish people, things like dietary and clothing restrictions. In all cases the shadows come to an end as the kings go into exile at Babylon, and the destruction of the temple ends the Levitical priesthood in 70 AD.
Notice that the New Covenant, which is union with Christ, brings together all the other covenants. In it we see that Christ is the prophet, the priest, and the king, and in it we are united to Him as our covenant head.


As a side note I’ve chosen to organize the diagram this way because Matthew in his genealogy marks three eras: Abraham to David, David to Exile, and Exile to Christ. The left side shows this (more or less). In Romans Paul makes two divisions, Adam to the Law, and the Law to Christ, which I think the right side shows too.

The Objective View


Unlike the Old Covenant which had sinful human priests making offerings which had no chance to take away sins, the New Covenant promises a priest who will once and for all cleanse the people. In one sense this is broader in scope than the previous view in that it looks not just at salvation but at all of the Levitical duties, but in another sense it’s much narrower in that it’s a covenant, and therefore a revelation about Christ. However, while this view is principally objective, it does also indirectly carry with it the subjective element of the people.
This view is more naturally understood from top to bottom, so we’ll work through the promises as they come.
  1. The first promise is a throwback to when Moses delivered the law to the people written on breakable stone tablets, then proceeded to locked them away in a golden box (Deut 10:2) that killed you upon touching it (2 Sam 6:7), and stuffed both into a dark room (Ex 26:33) that only the high priest could enter once a year, and then only when he was offering atonement for sins committed (Heb 9:7). Unlike that event, the new covenant the laws are going to be delivered directly into the hearts of men, which implies they are going to be the new temple (1 Cor 6:19), the new ark. It also teaches us that this time the giving of the law is going to be invisible, internal, and its ordinances are not going to be seen, but unseen (2 Cor 4:18). It also implies that God Himself is going to be the mediator, the one who delivers the revelation to men.
    This promise is a highlight of the prophetic role of Christ.
  2. The second promise is that God will be their God. This wording is identical to a previous time in the book, Jer 11:4, 15:7, where the people were told that if they would obey then they would be blessed. It’s also in Ex 6:7 as a unilateral promise from God that He would deliver them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. The idea here then is that in the New Covenant the keeping of the law will be accomplished, and the blessings for keeping it will be poured out. You will not have someone who tried to keep the law and failed, you will have someone who kept it and merited its blessings.
    This promise highlights the fidelity of Christ and His sinless obedience to the Law.
  3. The third promise shows us that there’ll be a rolling back of the duty the Levites to teach their neighbors about God. Previously our sinfulness made Him unapproachable, and to hear His voice was to fear for your life (Ex 20:19), so it was only natural that we’d need a priestly group to go before God lest we be destroyed. But now God’s going to appear among us, and do away with the requirement the Levites have to teach us or intercede for us. To this point I think Doug Van Dorn’s “Covenant Theology, a Reformed Baptist Primer” [locations 1587 through 1617] makes an excellent argument for the idea that this promise is principally about making Jesus known throughout history, which culminates in the incarnation. As He said, “Have I been so long with you and yet you still do not know me Philip? He who’s seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9).
    So promise three concerns a revelation of God that will be unlike anything previously seen. 
  4. This last promise speaks a priest coming to make an offering that actually succeeds in removing the wrath of God, and absolving the people of their sins. This is monumental. Is 42:6, 49:8, and Zech 9:11 teach us that somehow this priest is going to offer Himself, and through his blood purchase a pardon for men, but how that works isn’t entirely clear here. Nonetheless the guarantee is ironclad that God is going to actually forgive iniquity.
The chart below represents the objective view of the New Covenant. Notice that it looks almost identical to the previous one, the only difference being that this new covenant isn’t identical to union with Jesus. It’s a revelation about what Jesus will be like and what He’ll do. That’s why the gray box that defines covenants ends with the new covenant. You may understand what the New Covenant teaches about Jesus, but until you come to Him in faith you are outside of the kingdom and remain unsaved.


Which is Right?


Are we the object of the New Covenant promises or is Christ? Clearly we are the recipients of this grace no matter which one you pick, but of whom is the prophet speaking here, himself or someone else? As one who’s always held the subjective, I now think the objective understanding is superior.

First, it fits with the other covenants better this way. All the others were chiefly about a revelation of Christ, although they also contained an element of salvation for the people. But if the new covenant first and foremost about the plan of salvation for the people and not Christ then its flip-flopped from every other covenant. So I find the assertion that in this covenant the shadow is the focus of it to be an underwhelming idea. It inserts a kind of discontinuity that just doesn’t quite fit.

Secondly, if you take the objective model as dominant then you largely get the subjective one for free. If this is about Christ then it’s a quick and easy jump to talk about His work. To be a savior He needs people to save, to be a priest He needs people to intercede for, etc. But if we start with the subjective model then we don’t get the objective in return. This is very similar to the mistake the modern evangelical church makes in interpreting everything in the Bible as being about us. If we start with the notion that David and Goliath is a story about how we can fight the giants in our lives then there isn’t a lot of room for Jesus. But if we start with the premise that David and Goliath is a story about Jesus then we can easily find our place in it.

Thirdly, the objective model fits better with the warning passages found in Hebrews. You might ask, “If the elect are in mind for this covenant and they are incapable of losing their salvation then what gives, why warn them?” to which the Baptist would answer “the warning passages may be hypothetical, but that’s only because they’re the means of keeping the people saved to begin with. They are how God keeps the elect from falling away, by warning them of the danger.” And that’s a good answer.
But even so, it makes better sense to say you can be under the new covenant and not saved by dent of what a covenant is, and that these are real warning passages which people actually fall foul of. It also explains how you can ship wreck your faith, and yet have God never know you to begin with: falling away from the covenant takes you away from God, but those in the covenant are not necessarily those united to Christ. The faith that gets you near to God isn’t the faith that’s needed to save you, although it’s no less real. It’s the difference between living as a resident in a country and being a citizen of it.

Fourthly, the subjective model doesn’t seem quite right to it in how it reduces everything to be elect specific. If the third promise concerning knowing God is exactly equivalent to regeneration then the old Testament saints couldn’t be regenerate and must have been keeping the law in their own power. But we know that men like king Josiah who turned to God with all his heart (2 Kings 23:35) could only have done that because he was regenerate. That means that even in the subjective view the covenant must be a revelation about salvation, and not a promise identical to it. And once you’ve made that concession it seems the game is over for the subjective side.

Fifthly, and lastly, this makes more sense given the book of Hebrews. If the function of the New Covenant was to reveal the savior/priest/prophet in more fullness then you’d expect a book about it. If however it was about salvation then you’d expect a more comprehensive treatment about that. But Hebrews proceeds just like the objective view predicts, it spends most of the time on establishing Jesus a better mediator than Moses, a better priest than the Levites, and adds an ample amount of warning that just because you’re under this new revelation doesn’t mean you’re saved (Heb 10:29). Yet notice also that it drags the subjective element with it, notice Heb 8:8-9, 12 for example.

Does This Mean the Presbyterians Are Right?


I’m… uh… I think so. I don’t really like the conclusion honestly. Because if the Baptist model is right then the New Covenant community are the regenerate, and we apply the sign to the people who show signs of being regenerate in that they offer a profession of faith. Case closed. But if the covenant is a framework for salvation then that notion must be wrong.

Continue to Part IX - Subjective View Defended

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