Review of ’40 Questions About Arminianism’ by J. Matthew Pinson.

A Review of 40 Questions About Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 395 pages, paperback.

Kregel’s “40 Questions About…” series has produced a number of notable books. I myself have reviewed 40 Questions About Biblical Theology and 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. This book on Arminianism, or more accurately, Classical Arminianism, is written by the President of Welch College, a Freewill Baptist college in Tennessee. J. Matthew Pinson has degrees from Yale and Vanderbilt and is thoroughly evangelical. His book is a very welcome addition to the set and has been well reviewed.

The present reviewer is not Arminian. Neither is he a thorough Calvinist (much to the chagrin of writers like Roger Olsen who believe one must be either/or). If I may take a moment to explain; my studies of hermeneutics and theological method have left me dissatisfied with Calvinist formulations and defenses. They are simply too deductive for my taste. On the other hand, I do believe that some process of selection, conviction, and saving grace is supplied to meet the needs of some sinners and not others, yet never is the sinner’s responsibility undercut by the philosophical casuistry that is compatibilism, nor are passages like John 3:16-17, 36; 1 Timothy 2:4, 6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9; and 1 John 2:2 to be given unnatural readings to make them say what they plainly do not say. I see no reason to pick sides on the issue since I believe neither of them fully represents the data satisfactorily.

That said, I have known for many years that classic Arminianism is often terribly misrepresented by Calvinists, many of whom it is clear have never read it. Moreover, certain Arminian depictions of Calvinism are very unnuanced. To the one I recommend actually reading Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments or his Reply to Perkins. Both will persuade the reader of his strong positions on original sin and the impossibility of any sinner choosing Christ without Divine aid. To the latter I might recommend bypassing the doctrinaire work of A. W. Pink (or even John Piper) and instead reading someone like Elijah Coles or Charles Hodge. When all is said and done, Pinson is correct to say that the real issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is how one defines the sovereignty of God (175-177). One’s conception of “freewill” and the rest will have to fall in-line with that formal definition of sovereignty.

So what about this book? Is it worth the money? The answer is a resounding yes! Pinson has provided us with a theologically astute, irenic, and engaging work. As I have said, the book is about “Classical” Arminianism – a view that broadly encompasses both Arminius himself, but also John Wesley, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Oden, Roger Olsen, and Leroy Forlines, among many others. It is a view that feels at ease with the early Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (13, 77-79), but becomes uncomfortable once the net is tightened in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Hence, Arminianism in Pinson’s presentation has much overlap with the theology of many Calvinists.

When it comes to the atonement Pinson admits that many Arminians have preferred the “governmental theory” of Grotius and John Goodwin, wherein God acts as a Governor who accepts Christ’s sacrifice and pardons the sinner sovereignly without the need for a satisfaction to be made (90-92). Pinson, as Arminius, Wesley and I. Howard Marshall, rejected this view in favor of substitutionary atonement. This shows that the substitutionary view is not foreign to many Arminians as is sometimes thought.

When it comes to the question of whether Christ died for everyone (Q. 12 & 13) the author brings up the distinction between God’s antecedent will and His consequent will; a position first set out by John of Damascus in the 7th Century (111, 179). God’s antecedent will is that which comes from God’s character, whereas His consequent will is what God allows that flows from us. All Arminians agree that God sent Christ to die for the sins of everyone, and that He wants all sinners to be saved.

Having answered that Pinson turns to Calvinism and asks whether Calvinists are inconsistent by offering the Gospel to everyone even though they (five-pointers at least) hold that Christ did not die for everyone. His answer is in the affirmative. Arminians believe that the consistent Calvinists position with its necessary doctrine of two wills in God is unscriptural (129-136). I say “consistent Calvinism” because the author agrees with five-point Calvinists that four-pointers are inconsistent Calvinists because in that view God provides satisfaction for the sins of all but He is sparing on the dispensation of his grace (120-121).

Then we finally arrive at the question of freewill (Part 3). For most people this is where the rubber hits the road. Has God made man with a will to decide for something other than his “strongest impulse,” or is our will fixed by our strongest desire? In the first their is a power of contrary choice (libertarian freewill), while in the second there can be no contrary choice (compatibilist freedom). It is not too difficult to show that until the later Augustine every church father held to a form of libertarian freewill (see my review of Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism). This does not necessarily make it biblical, but it needs to be on the record. A libertarianism which takes seriously man’s concupiscence is set out and defended.

But isn’t Arminianism synergistic? Arminius himself, and many who follow him, Pinson included, would answer “No.” Since Classical Arminians have a robust doctrine of human depravity (Q. 15) they are insistent that it is impossible for a sinner to come to Christ without divine grace. The author cites Leroy Forlines: “regeneration is solely the work of God.” (146). He also commends Richard Cross’s “ambulatory model” wherein “the sinner is like an unconscious person who is rescued by EMT’s and wakes up in an ambulance and does not resist the EMT’s medical actions to save his life.” (147). This is a form of monergism, as even Calvinists like Oliver Crisp admit, although it differs from the Calvinist position wherein the sinner is like a corpse that must first be regenerated.

Question 16 (151-158) is a careful elaboration of the Arminian view of freewill. It is followed by a well-written critique of compatibilism (Q. 17, 155-166). Among the problems Arminians see in Calvinistic determinism are its redefining of “freewill,” that it is unfalsifiable, and that it is self-contradictory. Pinson believes that libertarian freedom does not detract from the glory of God, so long as one does not include evil in ones idea of divine glory (168-169). If evil is included in the definition and compatibilism is held on to then it becomes impossible to conclude anything other than that God is the ultimate cause of evil (170-173).

There are other matters which are well addressed in the book, such as passages like Ephesians 1:4-11; Romans 8:28-30, and 9:6-23. Pinson also has a section on perseverance and apostasy that includes some very impressive chapters. But before closing I want to visit the matter of “prevenient grace” which is addressed in Questions 21 to 26. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of this doctrine from all sides, so I wondered how the author defined it. The term itself is not a problem. Pinson is correct to assert that all orthodox Christians hold to a form of it. It is simply the grace that God gives to draw sinner’s to Himself (191). However, Arminians believe that grace is universal and resistible (192, Q. 24), not particular and irresistible. I confess that I especially struggle with the universal aspect of prevenient grace, and I don’t think Pinson allayed my concerns here.

At the end of the day, although I did not agree with everything in the book, I did find it an edifying and educational read. Before reading this work I would have recommended Olsen’s Arminian Theology: Myths & Realities, but now 40 Questions About Arminiansm will be the one I point people to first. It is essential reading for any serious student of Systematic Theology.

Covenant Connections in Paul (8)

Part Seven

The Return of Christ in Paul

            The earliest letters of Paul are the Epistle to the Galatians and the two Epistles to the Thessalonians (c. A.D. 48-50).  Every attentive reader knows that the theme of the second coming is found in every chapter but one of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  The teaching also features strongly in 1 Corinthians 3 and 15; Philippians 3:20; the letter to Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy.  Different verbs are used for the event, but the same idea is in view.  To this we may add Romans 8:19.  These passages do not serve only as anticipations of a great event; they speak of the culmination of something.  (After this there is the Bema Seat – 2 Cor. 5:10). 

            If we take the Thessalonian Epistles as our starting point, we can see the different uses the apostle puts the doctrine of Christ’s second advent to.  First there is the aspect of patient waiting (1 Thess. 1:9-10).  The coming of Christ “delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:10).  What this wrath (orge) is we are not told.  It may be the wrath of the second coming or the “revealing” (apokalypsis) itself as per 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, or it may more generally be “the Day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:1-3, 9).  It may also denote the Tribulation if one allows that Paul might have had that in mind.

            Paul also relates the coming (parousia)[1] of Christ to our sanctification (1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23).  In 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes,

For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming (parousia)?

            As I understand the passage Paul is saying that the saint’s fellowship in the presence of the Lord will be ample reward for their endeavors, when they all participate in Christ’s “kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14). 

            I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a little unusual amid the other references.  For one thing there seems to be a difference between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:1-2.  In the latter text the saints are well aware of the doctrine Paul is referring to, but in chapter 4 they seem to be being told something new (“I do not want you to be ignorant…”).  It seems best to look at this text separately therefore.

            Paul wrote about the return of Jesus as the great hope of the saint (Tit. 2:13).  But he also saw it as the great hope of the earth.  These two things are brought together in Romans 8 where he envisages a transformation of the saints that triggers environmental changes, thus bringing the believer’s hope into the realm of the larger Creation Project:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. – Romans 8:18-19.

            Here the apostle is contrasting the troubles of life with “the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  He personifies the created order as straining in expectation for something he calls “the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19).  So, Paul says that the humanity which in Adam originally came from the earth (Gen. 2:7), becomes the hope of the earth’s chances of regeneration. Creation’s regeneration hinges on the glorification of saved humanity.[2] 

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.  Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.  – Romans 8:20-23.

            Paul’s reasoning here is “that the creation was subjected to futility” as a consequence of the Fall.  When one looks at Genesis 1 it becomes clear that the first five days of creation and the first half of the sixth day were all preparation for the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27.  What God does next brings home to us the connection that Paul refers to in Romans 8 between human glorification and the world’s regeneration. God explicitly puts the responsibility for creation into the hands of man as His image in Genesis 1:28-30.  Therefore, the fact that the fortunes of man and those of his natural environment are still intertwined at the second coming is important to notice.  But someone might ask, “where is the second coming in Romans 8:20-23?”  It is found in the doctrine of “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23).  To see this more clearly consider two texts from 1 Corinthians 15:

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. – 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.  

            The context concerns the resurrection body.  In 1 Corinthians 15:23 we are told that we shall receive a body similar to Christ’s resurrection body “at His [second] coming.”  Hence, “the glory which shall be revealed in us” and  “the revealing of the sons of God” which Romans 8:18-19 speaks about occurs when Jesus returns.  Many read 1 Corinthians 15:47 as a reference to the first coming, but eschatological note is unmistakable.  We “shall…bear the image” of the resurrected Jesus.

Again Philippians 3:20-21 says,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

            The Christian has been born into “this present evil world” (Gal.1:4), but they no longer belong to it.  They possess the right to enter heaven; a right bought for them by Jesus Christ.  And according to Philippians 3:21 it is Christ who will “transform our lowly body” by glorifying it.  The apostle John will echo this truth later in the first century (1 Jn. 3:2).

            We do well to take stock of the importance that Paul places on Christ’s second coming.  He pins all of our hopes upon it.  Therefore, it is simply untrue to assert that for Paul “the linchpin of Paul’s eschatology is the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah,”[3]  if this identification does not place great emphasis on His return. This is borne out by the preceding passages and the weight of hope they bear. 

           


[1] From Paul’s usage of the two verbs here I believe the “revealing” and the “coming” of Christ are the same event. 

[2] This earthly regeneration is guaranteed by its connection with the glorification of believers, which is locked-in by the decree of God.  See Romans 8:30.   

[3] L. J. Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 256.

My Interview with the Do Theology Podcast

I did an enjoyable interview with Jeremy Howard of the Do Theology podcast about my understanding of interpretation and the role of God’s covenants. The audio didn’t turn out that well, but you may like the content:

Understanding God’s Communication: https://www.dotheology.com/e/understanding-god-s-words-with-paul-henebury-aka-dr-reluctant-part-one/

Understanding God’s Covenants: https://www.dotheology.com/e/understanding-god-s-covenants-with-paul-henebury-aka-dr-reluctant-part-two/

Covenant Connections in Paul (7)

Part Six

When Christ Delivers Up the Kingdom to the Father  

            There is a strategic passage in 1 Corinthians which bears upon both the eschatology and teleology of the Bible.  That text is found in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and requires a little time to think through, although I will confess at the outset that the passage may act as an exemplar of the influence of theological predispositions in hermeneutics.[1]  Because the thought is condensed it is easy to jump to conclusions about what each verse means.  It starts with a theological preamble:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

            Paul tells us that the resurrected Christ is only the first to rise among a host of others who have met death, euphemistically termed “fallen asleep.”  The OT idea of “firstfruits” was the first and best of the crop which was given to God the Provider.  It signaled the quality and abundance of what was to come.  Death is linked to Adam while resurrection life is linked to Jesus.  All that are in Adam will die and remain in death.  All who are counted in Christ will be “made alive.”  A saint may be connected physically to Adam and the curse, but because they are counted righteous in Christ death cannot keep them.  It is crucial to the Christian Gospel as well as to the whole Creation Project that the resurrection of the dead, procured as it is by the sufferings on Calvary’s cross, be accomplished by a man.  Jesus was and is the Christ, but the Christ is a man for men.  Despite His eternal provenance and His spectacular accomplishments, which go far beyond anything done by Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah, this Man died cruelly, detested by the powerful, misunderstood or else feared or even ignored by the majority, yet by Him (and Him only) comes the resurrection of the dead.  I shall look more deeply into the cosmic implications of the resurrection further on, but I want to note here how death through a man (Adam) is reversed and augmented (by glorification) through a Man.

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

            Paul speaks about a resurrection order (tagma).[2]  Jesus Christ is first and His resurrection, although it happened many centuries ago, prefigures ours.  The OT concept of the “firstfruits” of the crop is used by the apostle here.  The firstfruits is, “the first sheaf of the harvest which guarantees that there will be more to come.”[3]  Thus, the health of the firstfruits signals the health of the whole crop to come.  As Paul will go on to elaborate at the end of the chapter, the glory that comes to the saints upon their resurrection reflects directly upon the glory that was Christ’s when He was raised.[4]  This translates into the sort of status befitting sons of God (however unworthy).  Paul declares; “we shall…bear (phoreo) the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Cor. 15:49).  This “bearing” refers to a new way of existence; the eschatological real us!  The complete saint!   

            Then we get a mention of the “end” which is qualified by the way of instrumentation:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. – 1 Corinthians 15:24-25.  

            Christ’s giving up the kingdom to His Father occurs after He has reigned and “put all enemies under His feet.”  I take this to include not only Death, but the great archenemy of God, Satan.

Now the real question is about the kingdom.  Is Paul saying that Jesus is ruling now?  That is the interpretation of most exegetes.  In fact, Fee dogmatically claims the passage proves that Christ is reigning now.[5]  But is such confidence justified?  Verse 25 says “He must reign till.”  There is an imperative here.  It is essential for Christ to reign.  The reason Paul gives here is that He must bring all His enemies (here actual persons or beings) into submission.  The allusion is to Psalm 110:1-2:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.  The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.  Rule in the midst of Your enemies!

Notice how the Psalm locates the place of Christ’s rule: “Zion” or Jerusalem.  This ought to cause us to pause and ask some questions:

  1. Can “Zion” mean the right hand of God in Heaven?
  2. Does the OT indicate that Christ will rule in the midst of His enemies and does Paul negate it?
  3. What kind of reign is Christ involved in now if the world is just as evil and messed up as ever, with none of His enemies being defeated for two millennia?

The majority of commentators teach that Christ is indeed reigning in heaven right now and has done since His ascension.[6]  As so often in amillennial and postmillennial interpretation the little details are brushed aside.  “Zion” on earth cannot be the place of His rule even though numerous prophecies tell us quite the opposite (e.g., Psa. 2:6; 48:1-14; 50:2; 102:13-21; Isa. 2:3; 12:6; Joel 3:16-21; Mic. 4:1-7).  “Zion” does not appear to be a synonym for Heaven.  Furthermore, the “reign” of Christ in Heaven as envisaged by those who believe He is ruling now is of a rather unusual variety.  It is very unlike the reign predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, or indeed asked about by the disciples in Acts 1:6.  In fact, it seems to differ imperceptibly from God’s ongoing providential care of creation.  Certainly, there has been a marked absence of anything that might resemble what normally would count for a kingly reign: the crushing of the weak under the heel of the ungodly mighty; the elevation of pride and vanity, the suffering of God’s people, and the fact that Satan is still styled “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)!  Let us be frank, if Jesus is reigning over the world, and has been for nigh on two thousand years, it has been a singularly ineffective “hands-off” approach!

            Added to all this is the way Psalm 110 is employed in other places in the NT.  Michael Vlach notes that,

“In reference to Psalm 110:1, the author of Hebrews says Jesus is “waiting” at the right hand of the Father (see Heb. 10:12-13).  When the heavenly session is over, God installs His Messiah on the earth to reign over it.  From our current historical perspective, Jesus is currently at the right hand of God the Father, but this will be followed by a reign upon the earth.  Thus, Jesus “must” reign from earth because Psalm 110 says this must happen.  In Acts 3:21, Peter also uses “must” in regard to Jesus and His heavenly session before He returns to earth to restore everything.”[7]  

            And he adds,

“Jesus the Son and Messiah must have a sustained reign in the realm where the first Adam failed (see Gen. 1:26, 28; 1 Cor. 15:45).”[8]                           

            The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:26.

            Satan is not the last enemy, Death is.  We know that the future reign of Christ will have death in it, for Isaiah 65:20b says,

For the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.

If it aloud to stand without being manipulated via typology or spiritualization, then Zechariah 14:16-19 speaks of Yahweh meeting out punishments against nations who refuse to honor Him in Jerusalem.  And Zechariah 8:3-5 should be recalled because it refers to old and young in the streets of Zion at a time when “Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth.” (Zech. 8:3).

These facts, uncomfortable as they are for amillennialists and postmillennialists alike, demand either that we morph these OT texts to fit the way we think they ought to be, or we leave space in our systems for the insertion of a future kingdom where Jesus Christ will reign, but where sin and death are still present, and where He must rule with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:6-9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). 

So, 1 Corinthians 15:24-25 fit with the view that the new heavens and earth, where Christ delivers up the kingdom to His Father, and wherein there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), will be preceded by a “millennial kingdom” where Christ must reign until He has dealt with every enemy, Death being the last one.

For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. – 1 Corinthians 15:27.

            It must not be forgotten that Jesus in both his first and second advents, not to mention His coming rule, is the Servant of Yahweh.[9]  The whole Creation Project is predicated on His willingness to humble Himself and come into His own creation to suffer and die in it and to bring it under His dominion.  Here the apostle quotes from Psalm 8 and lends it a Christological interpretation; one that it does not appear to support in its original setting.  But the interpretive move is justified on account of the Incarnation.  The man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5) is the key to the Creation Project, and I have tried to show that He accomplishes it covenantally.      

Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:28.

            If I understand this right, Paul teaches here that Jesus cannot assume the role of absolute Sovereign of creation until He has delivered everything up to the Father.  But is Paul saying that the Son, will forever be subject to the Father?  I think we must tread carefully here.  This cannot be an ontological submission of the Son to the Father since that would mean there is an eternal ontic superiority within the Trinity.  The only way an eternal hierarchical order within the Godhead is possible is in the loving relationship between the three Persons; something that cannot be exactly duplicated in human relationships, but which the best Father-Son relationships represent.

            How might I summarize my understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28?  If I have caught the gist of the great apostle’s mind here, the verses express the marvelous truth that the resurrection of Jesus on behalf of His saints is the first installment in the full reconciliation of all things to God (cf. Col. 1:19-20).  This process is drawn out over several thousand years.  Christ rose and ascended two thousand years ago and His return will begin (not continue) His reign on this earth; an earth that has relentlessly gone its own way in defiance of God.  Christ’s initial rule (which I believe will last a thousand years – Rev. 20), is for the purpose of bringing His creatures to heel and to order and beautify the world so that it is fit to be presented back to His Father as fallen yet redeemed.  It will also justify God’s righteous dealing with fallen man because, as we shall see, given the most perfect political situation in a serene environment, and with Satan under lock and key, humanity will still chafe under the beneficent rule of King Jesus, and will finally rejoin the briefly emancipated Satan to seek His overthrow.  If I may supplement this portrait with more NT data, the rationale for the dissolution of the present heaven and earth and the bringing into being the New Heavens and Earth is that only in the new Creation will there be no more sin (Rev. 22:3), and hence no more Death. 


[1] Exegesis is not an exact science.  This statement may easily be tested against any number of passages as they are interpreted by an equal number of scholars.  In this case, I am using Gordon Fee and N.T. Wright as “counter exegetes” to my position.  In doing this I am well aware that where I differ from them (and them from me) I am encouraged in my line of thinking by my adoption of a certain premillennial eschatology.  The best I can do therefore, is to provide exegetical reasons for my interpretation of the passage.  I cannot be too dogmatic.  That will settle nothing.    

[2] For a good premillennial exposition of the passage, I recommend Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 436-444.  I do not believe there is an iron clad argument for a three-stage interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:20-28 that wins the day for premillennialists, but it does mean that the passage fits into the larger premillennial outlook very well.  There exists a strong reciprocal relationship between our interpretation of this text and many other passages in the Old and New Testaments. 

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 333.

[4] It is understood that this glory differs among the saints, doubtless depending on their service, but all glory is glory indeed, and if it is connected with the glory of the risen Jesus it will far excel our expectations.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical – Theological Study, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007, 109-112.

[6] On this subject see below

7] Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 441.

[8] Ibid, 442.

[9] As a side note, although it is common nowadays to think of Jesus as a Servant-Leader, it would be more accurate to think of Him as a Servant-Ruler.  He is our undisputed Lord and Master. 

Covenant Connections in Paul (6)

Part Five

Paul Before the Areopagus

I want to shift gears a bit and take a look at the “twins” which comprise the Creation Project and that drive it through the instrumentality of the covenants.  Those twins being Eschatology and Teleology which I spoke about in the first volume.  A good place to start is Paul’s defense at Mars Hill in Acts 17.  He is addressing pagan Greeks who have no familiarity with the Scriptures.  There would have been fruitless to attempt to introduce these scholars to the concept of a Jewish Messiah, or to impress them with a recital of OT prophetic expectation.  What these Greeks needed was a direct challenge to their worldview.  Paul begins his address by checking their metaphysics.  That is to say, he notices that there is an openness to religious/superstitious phenomena.  He is not speaking to a group of atheist materialists.[1]  Whether Epicureans or Stoics or something else, if Paul was going to refer to gods and such he would not be despised on that account.  These people worshiped (Acts 17:23).  Since they acknowledged there may be an unknown god to whom worship is due, they are covering themselves with an altar to “the Unknown God” (Acts 17:23).  This positions him to introduce the one true God to the Athenians (Acts 17:24f.). 

When I say “introduce” what I mean is closer to “remind” because as Paul says in Romans 1:18-23 God Himself is an inescapable fact, but sin and pride obscure the truth.  F. F. Bruce has said that “parallels to Paul’s argument can be adduced from Greek literature and philosophy.”[2]  Anyhow, Yahweh God is brought into the conversation front and center as the creator of both heaven and earth and everything in it (Acts 17:24).  That kicks the whole pantheon to the curb in a single verse!  The real God does not depend on His creatures for anything (Acts 17:25), which distinguishes Him from the general run of gods the Greeks would have been familiar with.  Moreover, God is the Lord of all living things and of all men throughout history (Acts 17:25-26).  Paul also slipped into his description the fact, insulting to Greco-Roman ears, that all men are of one race (Acts 17:26). 

Paul’s next pronouncement is interesting for a number of reasons.  He avers that God’s placement of humans; His “determination” (horizo) and “preappointment” (protasso) of them, had to do with the hope of their searching for Him.  As he puts it, “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:27).  This is a hard verse to comprehend.  If God wanted people to find Him, why did He make them “grope after” (pselaphao) Him?  I believe the answer must be joined to Paul’s proclamation of salvation in Jesus and should not be extended throughout time.  The Athenians were “groping” after the Divine and now they can find Him. 

What comes next is a surprise.  Paul the apostle quotes well known Greek writers to further his argument.  Not because he agreed with their philosophy, but because the truth about the world creeps in even when the reality of the Creator is suppressed.  Cornelius Van Til explored this area perhaps more than anyone else[3], and to my mind it is foundational to the articulation of Theology.  Sin has caused blindness in the unsaved to the program of God.  Scripture lights the way ahead (Psa. 119:105).  The Spirit of God opens the spiritual eyes.  Through what is often called ”common grace” but is better referred to general revelation those estranged from God can yet perceive snatches of reality.  Hence, the Apostle to the Gentiles finds vestiges of God’s truth in pagan writers and uses them to build a bridge to the pagan audience.  He has started by claiming that there is one God and that He is supremely in control of everything, and that everything is His creation (we might, for sake of ease, think of Plato’s forms, although the apostle’s doctrine brings them into this world).  He has then quoted two of their scholars (the philosopher Epimenides of Crete[4] and Aratus, a poet) to show that his teaching is partially known via general revelation.[5] 

Paul concludes the first part of his argument by showing that his God cannot be represented by human innovation and artifice (Acts 17:29).  Then in two verses he comes to the point:

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” – Acts 17:30-31.

            Paul had been requested to defend his teaching about “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18-21) before the Areopagus.  He bears down now on the great event that has brought him to Athens.  In light of this event a change of outlook (metanoia) is demanded.  A day of reckoning has been appointed, and one Man (Jesus) has been chosen to judge the world.  That Jesus is the Appointed One has been proven by His being raised from the dead. 

            Now Paul may have wanted to say more but this seems to be as far as he got.  It may be noted here that by referring to Jesus as “ordained” (horizo) Paul has included the concept of Him being God’s anointed.  Paul has moved from creation to judgment in a few verses.  Since God is controlling history, this means that the world is on a teleological (purposeful) and eschatological trajectory. 


[1] This is not to say that what the apostle declares is without real value for speaking to atheists. 

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 357.

[3] See especially Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980.  This work really needs to be republished. 

[4] Paul also quotes from Epimenides in Titus 1:12.  In fact he cites the same quatrain!

[5] See also Acts 14:15-17.

Covenant Connections in Paul (5)

Part Four

Paul, the Law, and the New Covenant

            It all comes down to this: the saint who is under the New covenant in Christ is not under the old covenant.  The reason is twofold.  Firstly, Paul, in agreement with Jesus’ earlier statement in Matthew 5:17-20, declares that faith in Christ does not void the law but rather establishes it in the act of keeping it for us (Rom. 3:31).[1]  My second reason comes as a logical consequence of my insistence that Christ embodies the New covenant, and that is that right relationship to Christ by faith necessarily includes entrance into New covenant status for the saint.  And one cannot be a party to two conflicting covenants, one dealing with ‘works’, the other dealing with pure grace.

            For those who hold that the New covenant is restricted to future Israel, or even for those who believe that the Church somehow has some sort of tangential relationship to the New covenant, they cannot point to covenant transference as a major reason for the saint not being under the Law, but they can point to the fact that Christ has rendered moot the requirements of the Law in terms of righteousness.  The NT is clear on this issue.  Christ came “to redeem those who were under the Law” (Gal. 4:5).  Henceforth, a person who is redeemed from being under the Law must now perforce no longer be under the Law.  The Law as an external standard has absolutely no authority over the Christian (e.g., Gal. 2:16, 19; 3:1-3, 11-12).      

            But then we must ask about the relationship of the saint to the Law, for it is plain to see that one exists for Paul still appeals to it on occasion (e.g., with women keeping silent in the assembly – 1 Cor. 14:34).  If the Law is not operative in some sense now how can Paul say that “every mouth will be stopped, and all the world will be guilty before God” – the standard being God’s Law (Rom. 3:19)?  And what is Paul doing in Romans 13:9?

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet, “and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  

             Romans 13:8-10 can you see how Paul enjoins Christian love by referring to the Law!  This is because the Ten Commandments (well, nine of them[2]) are divine disclosures of ethical norms based on the attributes of God.  If it is alright foe an apostle to base moral teaching on the Law, then it must be okay to include the Law as a standard for Christian conduct.[3]  But I must immediately qualify the statement.  First, these commandments reflect God’s own character (e.g., He is truthful, just, faithful, etc.), and as such they possess normative moral authority over a Christian.  Thus, if one is to be “conformed to the image of Christ” he will be conformed more and more to the Decalogue.  This is important to notice since the Law cannot regulate behavior as a “rule of faith.” 

            If we examine Romans 6, we come across a most important question: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  If we return Paul’s strong negative answer, then the question for the Christian ethicist is, “Well then, what ought we to do?”  How do we explicate a passage like Romans 6:11-19 for the people of God?  This involves us in the setting forth of a positive ethics.  We know Who the standard is (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:14), and we know that the Commandments, correctly understood, point to His moral perfection.  Therefore, we may use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8), as Paul does, to “adjust” our conduct accordingly.  This is just to say that the normativity of the Ten Commandments (minus the 4th) derives from their universal application.[4] 

            Think of another example: The Bible tells us not to bear false witness (Exod. 20:16; Rom. 11:9).  This is a NT use of the Eighth Commandment which some say they are not obliged to obey in any sense – since the law is not a norm for Christians.  But if one does not hold themselves to be accountable to this commandment – even though it is in a NT epistle written to Jews and Gentiles – they need not trouble themselves on this point.  However, this leaves them on the horns of a dilemma.  If a person believes they are not commanded to tell the truth; that is, if they believe “you shall not lie or bear false witness” is not an authoritative command to them because, 1. they are a Gentile, and 2. they are sanctified by faith alone; then clearly, they can lie with impunity.  If the rejoinder comes back that Christians are under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), I reply that that law is Love (e.g., Rom. 13:8, 10). 

            Let us compare two Pauline passages to further elucidate my point:

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. – 1 Corinthians 7:19.

            For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4. 

            In the 1 Corinthians verse “the commandments of God” surely refer to the Law in some way, and that way is set in opposition to the cultic requirements of the Law as seen in circumcision.  This means that Paul is offsetting one aspect of the Law with another.  The first aspect involves the universal ethics entailed in the Ten Commandments (minus the 4th), while the second aspect is the cultic-ethnic aspect tied to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.  This does not mean that it is okay to divide the Law up into moral, cultic, and ceremonial pieces.  For example, the Fourth Commandment is ethnocentric and concerns Israel just like circumcision.  But it is nevertheless true to say that while the rule of male circumcision is for Jews, and is therefore not universal, the rule concerning idolatry is for all God’s worshipers.  Hence, in 1 Corinthians 7:19 “the commandments of God” have to do with the universal and unchangeable realities which reflect God’s majesty and character and ergo are fully in force for Christians, even if they are not in themselves a means of justification.  The commandments reflect the character of God and are normative for the saint on that basis!  In Romans 10:4 where justification of the sinner is at issue (Rom. 10:3, 5) Christ is the telos; the goal of the Law is achieved in Him.

             These admonitions from Paul (and others such as in Eph. 1-5:21 and 1 Thess. 4:1-7) can all be subsumed within the Ten Commandments as expounded by writers like Jochen Douma and John Frame (again, minus the Sabbath command).[5]  A person who will not be ethically accountable to the Ten Commandments cannot, without serious contradiction, consider themselves obligated to obey Paul’s injunctions either.  They are of one fabric.

            In summary, the law is not a rule of life for the Christian.  The Christian is not “under the law” in that sense.  Moreover, because of the Christian’s involvement in the New covenant in Christ he cannot be “under the law” as a rule of life; Christ having lived that life.  But the Christian should realize that it is always wrong to have other gods, or to dishonor God’s name, or to commit adultery or steal.  These are universal ethical norms because they reflect the character of God Himself, and so stamp a moral imperative upon human beings at all times and in all places.  This is how the Apostle can refer believers to them while teaching us that “we are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14). 


[1] See e.g., Ronald E. Diprose, “A Theology of the New Covenant: The Foundations of New Testament Theology,” EMJ 017:1 (Summer 2008), 60.    

[2] The Fourth Commandment is never repeated in the NT.  In fact, it is directly contradicted in Romans 14:5-6. 

[3] Look, for instance, at Ephesians 6:1-3.  See how the Apostle uses the Sixth Commandment to the normative force of his injunction for children to obey their parents. 

[4] In normal circumstances.  I shall not enter into the debate about whether for instance lying to protect an innocent life is affected. In such circumstances I believe one is faced with a situation where it is impossible to treat the subjects as ends in themselves (i.e., as the Golden Rule commands) and one must choose the most righteous “means to an end.” For more on this see Robert Kane, Through the Moral Maze. Armonk, NY: North Castle Books, 1996. 

[5] Jochen Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 1996.  This is the best treatment of the Decalogue in my opinion.  See also John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 2008.     

Covenant Connections in Paul (4)

Part Three

Assessing the Argument for Restricting the New Covenant to Israel  

            J. Dwight Pentecost is a respected Dispensational scholar who wrote a fine book entitled Thy Kingdom Come.[1]  In this work he covers the New covenant in on pages 164 to 177.  The main passages Pentecost cites as referring to the New covenant are Isa. 61:8; Jer. 31:31-34; 32:37-42; Ezek. 16:60-62; 36:24-32; and 37:26.  He believes that the New covenant was made with Israel alone.[2]  He gives several reasons for his position.  The first is that the New covenant was said to be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8).[3]  The second reason for restricting the New covenant to Israel is that “it must of necessity be made with the same people with whom the original Mosaic Covenant had been made.”[4]  Thirdly, Israel will not receive the benefits of the New covenant until the second coming.[5]  I have the utmost respect for Dr. Pentecost and have personally much to thank him for, but I do not think any of these reasons are decisive.

            It is true that Jeremiah (and the author of Hebrews) limits his New covenant prophecy to Israel and Judah, and that is because in that OT setting Yahweh was referring to them.  But that fact does not mean that other passages do not include the Gentiles.  Pentecost’s selective choice of New covenant passages look cherry-picked, for many interpreters, Dispensationalists among them, identify as New covenant texts those that include Gentiles within them.[6]  There are many other passages which, although they do not name the covenant as the New covenant, are rightly considered to be important OT New covenant passages.  These include e.g., Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:10-53:12; 55:3; 59:15b-21; 61:8; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Hos. 2:18-20; Joel 2:28–3:8; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 9:10; and 12:6-14.  These passages contain many of the same elements which within Pentecost’s group of texts mentioned above, but some of them bring the Gentiles into the picture. 

            The next reason for restricting the New covenant to Israel is that it must be coextensive with the “old” Mosaic covenant.  But this does not follow, for if Yahweh were to reach out to the nations in the OT, He would have had to do it through the Law.  There would be no other conceivable way to do it.  But that would fail.  Ergo, if the Gentiles are to be saved it must be through a New covenant.  Since the New covenant is in Christ’s blood, and it is that blood that gives all sinners access to the grace of God (Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:24-25; Eph. 1:7; 2:13), there appears to be a major disconnect with those who wish to deny the Gentiles entry into the New covenant.  And this only gets intensified once 1 Corinthians 11:25 and 2 Corinthians 3:6 are recalled. 

            As for the third reason, that Israel will not benefit from the New covenant until the second coming, it is readily granted.  But what difference does that make?  If salvation going out to the Gentiles is one way “to provoke [Israel] to jealousy” (Rom. 11:11), then the Gentiles entering into the benefits of the New covenant before the nation of Israel would be a good way to do just that.         

A major problem here to my mind is that Pentecost has not perceived that the New covenant is the salvation covenant – there is no other!  Further, he has not sufficiently understood the affinity of the New covenant with the person of Jesus Christ.  Finally, although he cites them, he does not engage with either 2 Corinthians 3:6 or 1 Corinthians 11:25.  His arguments look artificial in light of these considerations.    

            To repeat; the question that arises is whether those passages alone refer to the New covenant or whether there are other very similar texts that have been omitted solely because they make reference to the Gentiles.  I have already been at pains to assert that the New covenant is the salvation covenant.  None of the other covenants deal with soteriological matters.  In Volume One of this work I wrote,

            I believe that if we allow redemption passages like Isaiah 49:6; 54:5; 66:19; Micah 4:2; Zechariah 8:7-8, 20-23; Malachi 3:12 to be New covenant passages, just as those we have listed above (e.g. Deut. 30:1-8) then we simply cannot restrict the New covenant to Israel. Surely the smiting and expanding stone of Daniel 2:35 and 44, and the “Son of Man” character of Daniel 7:13-14 presuppose salvation among the nations? As I have tried to demonstrate in my comments on Isaiah 42 and 49,19 the Servant who is made a covenant is Christ, and He is made a covenant of salvation. In Isaiah 49:6-8 the One who saves Israel and the nations and who is made a covenant cannot be a covenant of salvation only to Israel, while the nations are saved in a different way.[7]

            Another less delicate way of saying this is that I believe Dispensationalists especially, since they so adamantly advocate for a literal hermeneutic, need to reevaluate the New covenant passages in both Testaments.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 has been allowed to blinker many fine Dispensational interpreters into assigning the New covenant to Israel alone.  My plea is that they would come to realize that the main ingredient in the New covenant is salvation, or more broadly, reconciliation in the form of redemption and restoration.  Everything else that is purported to be found in the New covenant is in actuality the several aspects of the other unilateral covenants of God; the promises which have been revived because of the transforming power of Christ, which will come to fruition in a literal way by passing through the New covenant in Him. 


[1] J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come: Tracing God’s Kingdom Program and Covenant Promises Throughout History, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995.  A more recent book with several contributors who deny any relation of the New covenant to the church is An Introduction to the New Covenant, edited by Christopher Cone, Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013.  The book is a sterling effort by good men, but it fails to convince.     

[2] Ibid, 173.

[3] Ibid, 171.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Ibid, 172-173.

[6] See Appendix…”The Terms of the New Covenant and Its Parties.”  By “terms” I mean those things that God promised in New covenant texts; specifically, those promises that were not already covered by the oaths of the other unconditional covenants. 

[7] Paul Martin Henebury, The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 273.

Covenant Connections in Paul (3)

This series is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuation.

Volume One on Old Testament Expectation is already available.

Part Two

Another Pauline New Covenant Text

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  For He says:

“In an acceptable time I have heard you,
And in the day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. – 2 Corinthians 6:1-2.

            The OT passage that Paul is quoting is Isaiah 49:8.  Here is the original passage:

Thus says the LORD:

“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
And in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
As a covenant to the people,
To restore the earth,
To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages…”

            This passage is of a similar nature to 2 Corinthians 3:6.  Paul refers to himself and his coworkers with a New covenant reference.  Isaiah 49:8 is a familiar verse to readers of Volume One.  It includes a reference to the Servant (Messiah) as “a covenant to the people.”  The apostle does not quote the phrase, but it is safe to say he was aware of it.  Is this a mere coincidence?  Hardly.  Schnabel has drawn attention to Paul’s habit of reaching for Isaiah’s Servant Songs for his self-understanding of his mission.  In fact, I believe Schnabel is right when he says that the apostle saw himself as fulfilling the work of the Servant of the Lord.[1]  This can be seen in Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:46-47 where he quotes from Isaiah 49:6 and applies it to his ongoing work among the Gentiles.  As envoys of Jesus Paul and his coworkers are extending the Servant’s mission.  We can readily appreciate the link if we allow that Jesus the Servant is made a covenant of salvation (Isa. 49:8) and we connect this with Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that they were “ministers of the new covenant.” 

Again, in Acts 26:16-18 Schnabel points to the allusion to Isaiah 42:6-7 and 21.[2]  As Isaiah 42:6 also refers to the Servant as “a covenant to the people” the evidence that Paul saw his work in strongly covenantal ways is beginning to stack up.  If Isaiah 42 and 49 portray Messiah as the covenant Servant of Yahweh and Paul is himself seeing his ministry as an extension of the Servant’s work then the “Apostle to the Gentiles” is doing covenant work in the Church! 

It takes just a little fitting of the pieces together to arrive at the conclusion that Paul clearly understood his mission to the Gentiles in New covenant terms.  Hence, in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 we can infer his meaning as “Today is salvation offered to you Gentiles through Christ the Servant, through whom God has made the [New] covenant with those who believe in Him.”[3]  What ought not be missed here, as in all Paul’s letters, is how covernance lies behind his thought.                  

Paul’s Allegory in Galatians 4

            Paul’s teaching at the end of Galatians 4 is one of the more tricky parts of his correspondence.  It is well to print the text in full:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. 

For it is written:

“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.  But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.  Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”  So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. – Galatians 4:21-31.

            The fact that Paul wrote this to a group of churches so early on in his ministry demonstrates the level of theological instruction within these churches.  Here the apostle resorts to allegory (which is unusual) to get across a point about the “two covenants”, namely the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant that we saw in 2 Corinthians 3.  He begins with a question: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?”  The point here then is whether or not it is wise to “desire to be under the law (i.e., the old covenant).  The allegory is about Ishmael and Isaac, sons of Abraham by Hagar and Sarah respectively.  Paul then links the first to the Law at Sinai, which is then connected to “Jerusalem which now is,” and on the other hand is Isaac, who is related to the New covenant in Christ, that is, “the Jerusalem above.”  Paul says we Christians “are children of promise” and are free (from the old covenant).  His whole argument is how the New covenant of which he is a minister, and in which we are parties, has dispensed life and freedom to us in Christ.[4] 


[1] See Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church, Volume Two, 942-944. 

[2] Ibid, 943.

[3] Schnabel does not make the connection with the New covenant that I am making.  Nevertheless, I think it is hard to evade once it is pointed out.  Indeed, I am sure that he would hold the view that Paul was a New covenant emissary to the Gentiles.

[4] I fully realize that some good people will claim that I have run off the rails in saying that Christians are parties to the New covenant, but this does look exactly like what Paul is saying, and I must also say that the counter explanations that I have come across look like excruciating circumlocutions of the plain arguments Paul is presenting, both in these passages and elsewhere.  

Covenant Connections in Paul (2)

Part One

Paul’s Understanding of God’s Covenants

            Let me begin by again stating that the Apostle Paul saw himself as an ambassador of the New covenant. (2 Cor. 3:5).  Even though he rarely refers to it by name, it has become clear to many scholars that Paul’s theology is steeped in the New covenant.[1]   In the passages I cited above we can see this.  And it is true to say that without this comprehension of his mission Paul’s theology is difficult to pull together.  When one thinks of the matter-of-factness with which he deals with the Church, his future hopes for the nation of Israel, and his characterization of the OT Law as existing without the provision of grace, the New covenant work of God in Christ brings it all into reasonable clarity.  The key Pauline phrase “in Christ” means “in the New covenant.”  The Christian is in that blood bond as well as mystically in Jesus through the Spirit.  This qualifying distinction is all-important for Pauline thought about law and grace.    

            If we return to the three passages above, we can see this.  In Galatians 3:17 he says, “the law…cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.”  What is this “covenant” that is said to be “confirmed” in Christ?  It is of course the covenant with Abraham that he has introduced in Galatians 3:5-9, and 14.  Now the Abrahamic covenant has three branches to it; the promise of literal descendants to through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the promise of a homeland, and finally that through Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed.  It is crucial that we get the proper part of the covenant right.  Paul is not talking here about either the physical seed or the land promises.  He is focused on the third branch; the blessing upon the nations.[2]  The blessings of this third branch of the covenant are said to be “in Christ.” (Gal. 3:14, 17). 

            What we have here is Gentile Christians being told that they are children of Abraham through the promise that “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”  He is not saying that Gentiles have entitlement to the other two parts of the covenant. 

            If we now move on to 2 Corinthians 3 we bring in the New covenant.  Paul begins this great epistle by speaking about suffering and the consolation of God (2 Cor. 1:3-11), and then refers to what he calls “the day of the Lord Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:14), by which he seems to point to the judgment seat of Christ. 

            The opening two chapters of 2 Corinthians are quite self-referential, with the apostle saying much about his circumstances and his attitude to the ministry.  In chapter 3 he turns this focus on afflictions to appeal to the church at Corinth concerning his credentials as an apostle.  The Spirit of God has made His mark in them (2 Cor. 3:3), and it is the same Spirit who enables Paul and his helpers to be “ministers of the new covenant.” (2 Cor. 3:6).  Paul’s New covenant ministry is called “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 8!    Hence Paul’s contrast of the “old covenant” (palaios diathekes)[3] with the New covenant in the second half of the chapter makes perfect sense.  It also shows how deeply the theme of covernance lay behind his thought.   

Is the New Covenant For The Church?

            Who cannot see the continuity and semblance of thought here?  The Holy Spirit is the cause both of the new life of the Corinthian Christians and of the ministry of the New covenant to them!  If, as some insist upon, the apostle did not believe the New Covenant was for the Gentiles, then why on earth did he tell them he was ministering it?  Why speak of it to them?  And supposing his “New covenant ministry” was another ministry than the one Paul had in Corinth, why did he draw so close a connection between his non-covenantal Corinthian ministry to them and his supposed “other” ministry (i.e., of the New covenant)?.[4]  One would only minister the New Covenant to the party involved.  With all due respect to those who wish to snip off “New covenant” from Paul’s ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles this beggar’s belief!  What has happened to the “plain sense”?  Pray, what is the difference in the context between what Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 3 (cf. 2 Cor. 3:9) and “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 6?  If Paul wished to create befuddlement in the minds of his Corinthian readers, inserting the New covenant into a letter which had nothing to do with it would certainly be going about it the right way![5]

But it could be argued (and has been) that all Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians 3:6 is drawing a kind of parallel.  The argument goes that “ministers of the new covenant” (diakonous kainēs diathēkēs) does not in fact mean that Paul and his companions are actually ministering the New Covenant, only that their ministry resembles the future New Covenant dispensation.  I struggle a bit here.  For the NC work of the Spirit at the second advent is a complete work resulting in complete obedience (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:25-27; Zeph. 3:13), which is quite unlike what we experience today.  Still, if that is what Paul is doing one has to ask in interrogative tones, “Why even say such a thing?”  How is the argument helped by dropping a “by the way, our ministry is sort of like what the NC ministry will be like” in at verse 6?  Why make a comparison of covenants here at all?  It surely looks like Paul views “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8) as synonymous with his present work “as [a] minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” two verses earlier.  And even if the definite article is missing so that it actually reads “a new covenant” in verse 6, how far does that take us?  The contrast is between the Mosaic covenant and some covenant – a covenant involving the Spirit’s gift of new life.  Which covenant could that be?  The Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants do not include the Spirit’s saving action in their terms.  The answer is staring us in the face: the New Covenant.[6]


[1] See for example, Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.  James P. Ware, Paul’s Theology in Context, esp. 104-110.  

[2] The same thing is to be seen in Romans 4. 

[3] I realize that many take this phrase in 2 Cor. 3:14 to mean the Old Testament, but this spoils the contrast.  The correct translation of diatheke in that place is “covenant” not “testament.”  See e.g., NASB, ESV, NET.

[4] Or even of some eschatological ministry of which he would not be a part?

[5]I feel I need to offer the reader my apology for that last paragraph.  

[6] Cf. David K. Lowery, “2 Corinthians,” in BKCNT, edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, Victor Books, 1997, 560-561.

Covenant Connections in Paul (1)

From the time of Paul’s dramatic conversion in Acts 9 he was called to represent Yahweh to the Gentiles.  Yet he never forgot his people.  He would often begin a stint in a city by going into the synagogues and expounding Christ to the Jews (e.g., Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1-3).  Although he did not write systematic expositions, Paul’s occasional letters He is the qualify him as the greatest theologian of the Christian Church.  His thought is profound and multilayered, and I cannot do it justice here.  My interaction with Paul is more modest.  I am interested in the investigation of how the covenants of God affected his thought.  And I am also interested in how he understood the doctrine of the Church against the background of the OT covenants, and the role the Person of Jesus Christ plays in that understanding.

Paul As an Apostle of the Covenant(s)

            Like the other NT writers Paul does not speak explicitly about the biblical covenants in very many places.  Having said that, the presence of covenant language is easy to find, and the influence of the covenants is not hard to detect.  One has only to consider the following examples to see this clearly:

And we have such trust through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (My emphasis).

And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. – Galatians 3:17.

For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. – Galatians 4:24-26.

            I shall of course be examining these and other scriptures in due course but permit me to point to one or two matters as we begin.  In 2 Corinthians 3 (A.D. 56) Paul tells us that he comprehends his ministry in terms of the New covenant, and in true New covenant fashion he highlights the work of the Spirit in this ministry.  In Galatians 3 he refers to “the [Abrahamic] covenant that was confirmed before [the Law] by God in Christ.”  While in Galatians 4 he speaks of the symbolism of two covenants; the one signified by Ishmael and the bondage to the flesh; the other signified by Isaac and the freedom through the grace promise; the promise of the covenant with Abraham (which Ishmael was not party to) transcended the requirements of the Law.     

            In treating the Epistles of Paul, I have decided to follow a thematic scheme rather than a chronological scheme.  My reason for this is that I want to treat Paul as an author like I have treated Luke or Isaiah.  I am not of the opinion that the inspired Apostle once thought one way and ten or so years after thought differently.  To say it in another way, I do not believe that the inspired letter to the churches in Galatia (c. A.D. 48-50) evinces a less mature theological mind than we find in Romans (A.D. 56) or in 2 Timothy (c. A.D. 65).  We are talking about a mere fifteen years after all, and the occasional nature of Paul’s correspondence does not allow enough data to theorize about the state of his doctrine by comparisons of his letters one with another.  The same holds true for Paul in the book of Acts; there is but one theology of Paul, not a naïve theology and a mature theology. 

            I should also say that I am not impressed with the insistence of many modern critical scholars like N. T. Wright and J. Christian Beker who urge upon us an “apocalyptic Paul.”  By this term they have in mind Paul’s doctrine of God’s radical intervention into world affairs through His resurrection and the new birth and then with His second coming.  For reasons I have gone into elsewhere I reject using the notion of apocalyptic in this way, for it always ends up getting in the way of what the text is saying.  So for example, we end up with an “apocalyptic gospel,”[1] not a straight Gospel with natural teleological and eschatological elements.  What I want to try to show is that Paul thought covenantally.  Again, I need to say that because Jesus Christ had come He takes the limelight, but the covenants are never forgotten.  God’s covenants, especially those with Abraham and David always undergirded the message.  It’s time to turn to the covenants in Paul.


[1] E.g., Anthony C. Thiselton, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009, 17.