I have been thinking for a while that it might be a good idea to write about the New Covenant. Although there seems to be little confusion about it in the minds of Jeremiah, Paul, or the author of Hebrews, it has become something of a bugbear among Dispensationalists. In this series I want to interact a little with their issues, but I also want to provide my understanding of the New Covenant, which, as it happens, adds one more alternative to the dizzying list already occupying the thought of many good men and women.
The New Covenant has given Dispensationalists all kinds of headaches. Taken as a generality, they seem unable to come to a consensus about this extremely important teaching of the Bible. In a helpful way, Mike Vlach has set forth six different ways the NC has been understood by Dispensationalists broadly:
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
- There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists like the early John Walvoord)
- The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the church. The New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
- Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)
Vlach says he holds to the sixth option, which, along with the fifth, is, I think the most theologically defensible position among the six for a Dispensationalist to hold; especially one who doesn’t wish to be seen as a theological troglodyte by his Reformed peers. Saying this does not of course mean that the other positions are wrong; only that they encourage more head-scratching among onlookers. Doesn’t the Apostle tell the Church to observe the institution of the New Covenant?
In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” – 1 Cor. 11:25
Moreover, contrary to those Covenant Theologians who talk about “progressive revelation” but who mean by it that revelation changes dramatically as the centuries go by, don’t Dispensationalists actually mean that revelation can be augmented without morphing into something else? They do indeed. And yet they get their wires crossed on the New Covenant. Why is this?
Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8
A lot of the trouble arises because the prophet Jeremiah, in what could be called the locus classicus of the New Covenant, did not see the need to include the Gentiles within his prophecy. He says there that
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” – Jer. 31:31-34.
It’s a glorious passage, and it is definitely aimed at future Israel. Surely then, we should all say together that the New Covenant is for Israel alone? Adding fuel to this fire is the Book of Hebrews. The writer of that book has a golden opportunity to set the record straight and tell us if we in the Church are New Covenant people. He does not; at least in so many words. He is content rather to cite Jeremiah in what turns out to be the longest OT citation in the NT. Fait accompli? It looks that way to some.
But Paul (and Jesus)
But then there are those places in the NT where we are given reason to pause. I have already quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. But all he is doing there is quoting Jesus’ own formula in the Upper Room in Luke 22:19-20. “Yes,” comes the reply, “and He was instituting it with Jewish disciples.” But…those same disciples were to become the foundation of the Church, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20).
So what is to be done? I believe a thorough look at the “New Covenant passages” of the OT is the first order of business. What we need to decide is whether Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the last word on the New Covenant, or whether it fits within a much broader New Covenant revelation. That is where we will begin…
5 thoughts on “My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 1)”
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What I find pretty strange: on the one hand, we dispensationalists emphasize that revelation concerning the Church is a mystery–revealed in the NT and not found in the OT. (Yes, the OT reveals that Gentiles will seek the Jewish Messiah, but the body of Christ–the technical definition of the Church–is not a concept one meets in the OT.) On the other hand, many dispensationalists get all tied up in a knot because there is no mention of the Church in relation to the New Covenant by Jeremiah! Well . . . DOH! 🙂 We can’t have it both ways, can we? Since when did we forget that revelation is progressive?
In my view, the words of Jesus in the upper room–in combination with Paul’s declaration that we are “ministers of the new covenant” make it extremely difficult to argue that the Church does not participate in the New Covenant. Otherwise, we’ve been going about for two millennia ministering something we don’t have–and those who come to faith join the Church only to find they don’t have it either. That would be surpassing strange!
I look forward to the remainder of your articles on this–you having given so much thought to covenants of late. 🙂
Some years ago I gathered a number articles by dispensationalists addressing the Church’s relationship to the new covenant. Stephen Lewis (Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, 2002), Russell Penny (Conservative Theological Journal, 1998), Andy Woods (spiritandtruth.org), Rodney Decker (BibSac, 1995), Bruce Compton (DBSJ, 2003) and Christopher Cone (Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, 2009).
And I just got confused! So many views.
So it is great if you are tackling this and thus show some light.
Cone (“Hermeneutical Ramifications of Applying the New Covenant to the Church”) insists the NC can’t be applied to the church. Cone thinks the literal grammatical-historical approach is lost when this is done. He says blessings had by the church often associated with the new covenant are discussed by NT writers with no mention of the new covenant. He thinks Church blessings come not from the new covenant but from the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:3).1 Corin 11:25-26 tells us the purpose of the ordinance in the church – to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. He writes “The silence of the OT on certain matters pertaining to the covenants has apparently become the fertile ground for expansion and ‘already not yet’ fulfillments.” He says “the problem of consistency is readily apparent: how can I apply ‘already not yet’ to the new covenant and yet argue that it should not be applied to the Davidic covenant [progressive dispensationalism]?”
Also I saw disagreement about when the new covenant was ratified not just whether the church is included in it. What threw me was Ezekiel 20 which Roy Beacham raised as an issue. If it refers to the cutting of the new covenant then if that covenant was ratified at the cross, Ezek 20 would have to refer to that event although it is in a context describing events, (eg, God’s gathering of exiles, purging the nation, restoring a remnant) which on our hermeneutic could not apply to past events.
I emailed Mike Stallard about that back in 2010 because he had just posted something about it. He said that Decker had responded to Roy Beacham, that Decker had “presented a study of the covenant language of the OT in cases where that language allows for earlier application of the covenant blessing before a formal ratification. This would be one answer to the Ezekiel 20 problem for those who want to see present application of the new covenant to the church (i.e., seeing the new covenant ratified at the Cross.”
This would mean that the new covenant could be formally ratified (ie. officially implemented) at the second coming with a present application for the church.
If I understand this correctly then he is saying that those who see the new covenant ratified at the cross can suggest two ratifications: 1) a formal ratification at the second coming with an earlier application of the covenant blessing and 2) a ratification at the cross.
At any rate I’m grateful if you can take us through these issues. Thank goodness!
Thanks for this series, Paul.
And great comments too.
Looking forward to this series!