Why New Covenant Theology


New Covenant Theology is focused on God’s eternal purpose in Christ. Therefore, it interprets the Scriptures around him (Christ is the theme of the Bible), instead of a system of two covenants or a certain number of dispensations. It seeks to produce Christians who fix their thoughts on Christ. (This is one reason that I prefer the term Christ-focused Theology. - Dave Frampton)

Introduction

I.          One of the difficult questions confronting the church through the centuries is the relationship between the Old and the New Testament Scriptures.

A.        This debate has been taken different forms.

1.         Sometimes the church has been confronted with errors over canonicity (”Does the Old Testament continue to have place of Scripture?”) or doctrinal content (”The God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament!”). The true church has always rejected such errors.

2.         Usually the debate concerns the relation of the New Testament Christian to the Old Testament laws, sacrifices and ceremonies, and the relation of Israel to the Church. From an evangelical point of view, there are three major alternatives.

a.         Synthesis - God has made one covenant with fallen humanity (the covenant of grace), which is administered in two different dispensations (law and gospel). God’s moral law is unchanging, but ceremonial and civil law (both called “positive law”) change according to the dispensation. God has only one people, which in Old Testament times was called Israel, but now is called the Church. This view is called Covenant Theology.

b.         Division - God has dealt with humanity in different ways in different ages or dispensations (the number of these divisions may vary). What God requires of mankind varies in each dispensation (God’s law is different in every age). God has two peoples, Israel and the Church, which are distinct in law and hope. This view is called Dispensationalism, whether in its classic or modified forms.

c.         Progression - God has one purpose in Christ, which he is working out through a progression of ages and covenants. Through the ages God has progressively revealed his will from the Garden to the old covenant to the new covenant. God’s law has a basic ethical continuity with changes in positive law leading to the finality of Christ’s law. God has only one people, those who believe in Christ. This view is called New Covenant Theology.

3.         It is a mistake to equate any of these views with any exact millennial viewpoint, though Dispensationalists are Premillennial. Both Covenant Theologians and New Covenant Theologians may be Amillennial, Postmillennial or Premillennial.

B.        The discussion of this subject among evangelicals does not directly concern the doctrine of salvation. In other words, a true follower of Christ may hold any of the above views. Then why is this subject important?

1.         It influences the doctrine of the church. Covenant Theologians see the Church and Israel as basically identical (except for ceremonial law). Therefore, they see the church composed of believers and their children, and so they baptize infants to give them the sign of the covenant. Dispensationalists maintain that Israel and the Church are distinct, so their view supports the current separation of the Church and Messianic Jewish congregations.

2.         It affects the believer’s use of the Scriptures. Covenant Theology tends to “flatten the Scriptures” (failing to see the progress of redemptive history). Then the historical portions become little more than moral lessons, which lends plausibility to ideas of “reproducible experience” (for example, the book of Judges shows a pattern for personal renewal, or having a “personal Pentecost”). Dispensational Theology tends to divide the Scriptures into unrelated parts, so that most of the Scriptures (the Old Testament and part of the New Testament) has no direct authority over the believer’s life (contra 2 Tim 3:16).

3.         It affects the doctrine of the Christian life. Since Covenant Theology considers the Ten Commandments to be God’s “unchanging moral law”, it views them as the “believer’s rule of life”. In this scheme the New Testament commands are viewed as having less importance than the “moral law”. Since Dispensationalism, especially in its classic forms, views law as God’s way of dealing with Israel and grace as God’s way for the Church, it tends to produce a disregard for God’s laws, considering obedience to the law as “works righteousness”. (Modern modifications of Dispensationalism have backed away from this tendency, and so are less open to criticism in this area.)

II.        The prevailing interests of the three approaches.

A.        Covenant Theology is focused on two extra-Biblical covenants, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The important thing is to be “in the covenant”. Since there is also an interest in the “unchanging moral law”, Covenant Theologians can produce a law-focused view of the Christian life.

B.        Dispensationalism is focused on God’s purposes in Israel. The impression is given that the church is almost an afterthought in God’s program. For example, “Israel is on the main line of God’s purpose, but has been temporarily put on the sideline while the express train (the church) passes by. Then Israel will return to the main line.” This view tends to produce Christians with an excessive interest in the relation of current events to prophecy.

C.        New Covenant Theology is focused on God’s eternal purpose in Christ. Therefore, it interprets the Scriptures around him (Christ is the theme of the Bible), instead of a system of two covenants or a certain number of dispensations. It seeks to produce Christians who fix their thoughts on Christ. (This is one reason that I prefer the term Christ-focused Theology.)

What is New Covenant Theology?

I.          Principles of interpretation

A.        Use Biblical words and phrases whenever possible, and use them in their Biblical meanings.

B.        Build the framework for understanding the Bible around Christ rather than lesser matters. All of God’s purpose revolves around Christ. The Scriptures speak of him and his accomplishment of redemption for the glory of God.

C.        Recognize the progressive nature of special revelation. God partially revealed his will until it reached finality in Christ and the New Testament writings.

D.        Realize that since Christ has fulfilled the old covenant and set it aside, the new covenant now regulates the life and worship of the people of God, from the cross and through all eternity.

E.         Understand that human history is divided into certain ages, but see these ages in relation to the person and work of Christ.

II.        Important ideas of Christ-focused or New Covenant Theology

A.        God has only one eternal purpose and one elect people. His purpose is to save his chosen people of all ages through the Lord Jesus Christ for his own glory. Since God’s purpose focuses on his Son, Christ is the theme of the Bible (Ephesians 1:9-10,22-23; Luke 24:27,44-45; John 5:39; Revelation 19:10).

B.        The importance of Abraham is not that he is the father of the Jewish nation, but that he is the father of the nation that will bring forth Christ (Romans 9:4-5; etc.). The establishment of Israel as God’s nation under the old covenant was only a means to the fulfillment of his one eternal purpose, and not a separate end in itself. God has only one people, those saved by faith in Christ in whatever age, which share together in the promised inheritance (Ephesians. 2:11-16; 3:6; Hebrews 11:39-40; Romans 11:11-32; Revelation 1:5-6; 5:9-10; 7:9,14; 21:24; 22:2).

C.        The Old Testament Scriptures must be interpreted in the light of the fuller and complete revelation of the New Testament Scriptures. We thus interpret Old Testament prophecies in harmony with the methodology of the New Testament Scriptures. The focus of the New Testament Scriptures is on Christ as the fulfillment of the law and of the promises made to Israel. Christ has a superior ministry and a better covenant with better promises. Christ supersedes and replaces Moses as lawgiver in exactly the same sense that he supersedes and replaces Aaron as priest (Matthew 5:17; John 1:17; Acts 3:17-18; 26:6; Ephesians 3:8-11; Colossians 2:13-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 8:6; 1 Peter 1:10-12).

D.        The relationship between the Old and the New Testament Scriptures is (1) of promise, shadow and type found in the Old Testament (2) to fulfillment, substance and antitype in the New Testament. Therefore, on the one hand, the way of salvation is the same in both Testamental periods - by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Believers in Old Testament times embraced Christ in the promise by faith, and we believers in New Testament times embrace Christ as the fulfillment by faith. On the other hand, the lifestyle of the Old Testament believer was one of immature position in God’s family and of incomplete revelation, while that of the New Testament believer is one of mature position in God’s family and completed revelation (Hebrews 10:1; Romans 4:13-16; 15:8-9; Galatians 4:1-7; Ephesians 2:19-22).

E.         The proper way to view the progressive revelation made by the living God in the Bible is to see the structure built around God’s purpose in Christ. In the Scriptures we see a revelation that increases in clarity and fullness of mankind’s need of Christ, God’s promise of Christ (the Seed, the Covenants, the Servant, etc.), Christ’s accomplishment of revelation, Christ’s present ministry as Mediator of the new covenant, and Christ’s still future restoration of all things.

III.       The structure of the Bible according to New Covenant Theology, contrasted with Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism.

A.        Dispensationalism views history as divided into unrelated dispensations or time periods. In classic Dispensationalism there are seven of these eras. According to this view, they do not necessarily build on each other, but God is demonstrating in each one mankind’s need for grace. Though the cross divides the dispensation of law from that of grace, in the structure of history, it is not the high point of God’s plan. The high point occurs at the end of the dispensational period.

B.        Covenant Theology views history divided into two periods that are governed by two covenants. Mankind failed to keep the covenant of law, and so immediately after the fall, God made another covenant, the covenant of grace. Though the cross is important in the covenant of grace, in the structure of history, it merely divides the administration of law from the administration of the gospel. The turning point of history was really the giving of the covenant of grace in the garden.

C.        Christ-focused Theology sees all history in relation to God’s purpose in Christ. All the ages before the cross (what the New Testament calls “the ages past”) were in preparation for the coming of Christ. The ages after the cross (”the present age” and “the coming ages”) derive their character from and reach their goal through Christ, the mediator of the new covenant. This present age reveals his grace in the preaching of and living according to his gospel. The coming ages will reveal his glory.

IV.       The benefits of New Covenant Theology

A.        Christ-focused Theology takes seriously Christ’s teaching that the Scriptures speak of him (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:36-47). This frees us from using the Bible as textbook on law or ethics or from using it as a clue book to figure out the relationship between prophecy and current events. Instead, we can simply and clearly say, “Here is God’s plan in Christ. You had better know the Risen and Ascended Lord the plan presents for your attention.”

B.        Christ-focused Theology provides a clear and adequate way to explain the elements of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and the New Testament Scriptures. We must take 2 Timothy 3:16-17 seriously! Through the grid of Covenant Theology, this requires the “flattening” of history and law. Except for his work of redemption, not much really happened when Christ came. Perhaps a few ceremonies and positive laws were changed, but the life of faith is much the same. Through the grid of Dispensationalism, this requires the splitting of history and God’s people. Christ accomplishes his work, but now has two people, with different laws and destinies. The work of theology becomes figuring out what doesn’t apply to the church, but to Israel, and vice versa. Much more could be said on this point!

C.        Christ-focused Theology provides us with a clear way to interpret the Christian life and experience, so that we can learn from the examples of the OT saints without retrogressing into their position. The approach of Covenant Theology is basically either to hold the Christian under the smoke of “unchanging moral law” that was “republished” at Sinai, or to ease him along the way since he is “a member of the covenant of grace”. Since those who hold Dispensational Theology view Israel and the Church as separate, the Old Testament Scriptures do not directly apply to the life of the believer. It also becomes difficult to see why the Christian position is superior to the position of the believing Israelite, since it will be replaced by the kingdom era. Therefore, both of the traditional views largely ignore the new covenant believer as an adult son under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

D.        Christ-focused Theology allows us to interpret terms and concepts in their Biblical significance. Sometimes when you read Covenant Theologians talking about “the old covenant” or “the new covenant”, you really have little idea what they are talking about and you wonder if they do, too! In contrast, when you read Dispensationalists talk about both, you wonder just how the two are that different and why any Christian could be part of the new covenant (as in partaking of the Lord’s Supper)! Christ-focused Theology allows us to examine texts without dragging a lot of non-Biblical apparatus into the text.

E.         Christ-focused Theology leads us to rejoice in the fullness of Christ’s completed work for the glory of God and the good of his people. In Christ and his new covenant we have something better! We don’t try to put new wine into old wineskins (Covenant Theology) or wonder why Christ has two different sets of wineskins (Dispensationalism).

Comparison and Contrast of the Three Views

Point of DoctrineCovenant TheologyDispensationalismChrist-focused
Way of SalvationBy grace through faith in Jesus ChristBy grace through faith in Jesus ChristBy grace through faith in Jesus Christ
People of GodOneTwoOne
FocusLaw or Covenants of Law and GraceIsraelChrist
Interpretation of the TestamentsOld Testament is primary because it was firstOld Testament is primary because of literal promisesNew Testament is primary because fullness is in Christ
View of Ten CommandmentsUnchanging moral lawGiven to Israel as a dispensational testPart of covenant made on Sinai with Israel
View of lawMoral and positiveChanging standardsProgressive revelation
Israel and the ChurchChurch is Israel nowIsrael and the Church separateIsrael is the type; the Church is the antitype
Progress of historyTwo covenantsSeven dispensationsGod’s eternal purpose in Christ through ages and covenants
Old Testament SacrificesFulfilled in ChristWill be reinstituted in the kingdomFulfilled in Christ
Beginning of the ChurchCovenant of Grace (made in Gen 3:15)PentecostPentecost

Contrasts Between the Old and the New Covenants

The Old CovenantPoint of ContrastThe New Covenant
IsraelPeople of GodChurch
PhysicalNationSpiritual
Natural BirthCitizenshipSpiritual Birth
Saved & LostCitizensSaved Only
In the flesh by human handsCircumcisionIn the heart by the Spirit
ObedienceCondition of BlessingFaith
Whole Mosaic LawGovernmentLaw of Christ
“If” - Ex 19:5-6Goal“You are” - 1 Pt 2:6,9
“Do and live”Proclamation“Done”
All finishedPresent StateAll new