Saturday, July 28, 2007

What Has Christ To Do With Any Covenant?

It has been stated in some of the recent discussion that, although the covenant may have been an important way in which God dealt with his people in the past, the coming of Christ has rendered the arrangement somewhat less relevant. The suggestion seems to be that, even though “covenant” is a biblical term, the concept has very little to do with the work of Christ; or perhaps, if it is somehow connected with Christ, it is really not all that pertinent to our salvation. I would suggest, on the contrary, that Christ has everything to do with God’s covenants, past and present, and that the New Covenant especially is a very important part of the salvation we have in Christ.

I pass over, for now, a discussion of Christ’s relationship to the former covenants made in the Old Testament. Many volumes have been written, and many more could still be written, on how Jesus is the focal point of God’s covenants made with Abraham, with Israel, with David. Many of these connections are obvious on the face of the matter, though some require deeper study. But for the present, I would like to turn my attention to the New Testament. What does Christ have to do with what the scriptures call the New Covenant? And how important is this covenant in the whole scope of our salvation?

First of all, the establishment of the New Covenant was one of the primary purposes for which Christ shed his blood on the cross. We see this from the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper in which Jesus referred to the cup as “my blood of the covenant” (Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24) and as “the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:21; I Cor. 11:24). Hebrews also tells us that the reason Christ had to die was that the New Covenant could not have been put into effect without the shedding of his blood (Hb. 8:16-17). The New Covenant, then, is a work initiated and inaugurated by Christ, particularly through his death.

Second, the New Covenant is a work that continues to be mediated by Christ (Heb. 8:6). It is an arrangement that he perpetually guarantees and administrates (Heb 7:22). It is through this covenant that he continually intercedes for the saints before God (Heb 7:25). The New Covenant, then, is the work of Christ from beginning to end, he being both its founder and perfecter (12:2). It is founded upon his sacrificial death and perfected through his heavenly intercession. The covenant, then, far from being an atrifact with which Christ did away, is an arrangement which he died to ratify and a relationship that he lives again to mediate.

The importance of this covenant becomes even clearer when we look at the specific aspects of our salvation that are provided through it. It is through this covenant in Christ that our sins have been forgiven (Mt. 26:28; Rom. 11:27; Heb 8:12; 9:15, 22). It is through this covenant in Christ that God has become our God and we have become his people (Heb 8:11). It is through this covenant in Christ that we are able to draw near to God (Heb 7:25). It is through this covenant in Christ that we are sanctified (Heb 10:29). It is through this covenant in Christ that God’s laws have been put into our minds and written upon our hearts (Heb 8:11). It is through this covenant in Christ that our consciences have been purified to serve God (Heb 9:14). It is through this covenant in Christ that we are to receive our promised eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15) In short, it is through this covenant in Christ that we are saved (Heb 7:25).

Why would it be, then, in light of all these things, that someone would think that covenants are merely Old Testament arrangements which Christ set aside at his coming? How could someone say that after the death of Christ, we are no longer saved by covenants? If we are saved by something other than God’s covenant, then certainly, we are saved by something other than the work of Christ-- the scriptures will not allow the two to be separated. God thought that this covenant was worth the blood of his Son; certainly it is worth more attention than evangelicals tend to give it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Brief Aside

Almost inevitably, discussion of covenant theology turns to a consideration of end times prophecy. While it is true that covenant theology tends to be more or less consistent with particular eschatological views, the validity of covenant theology does not therefore stand or fall, for example, with pre- post- or amillennialism; indeed men who consider themselves covenantal can be found in each of these camps.

Nevertheless, it often happens that covenant theology is criticized by non-covenantalists for its approach to biblical prophecy. Non-covenantalists, it is argued, interpret prophetic passages literally, while covenantalists interpret them figuratively, especially, it is thought, when a literal interpretation of a passage would produce a conflict with the pre-conceived covenantal framework.

Putting the issue of covenantalism aside for a moment, it does not appear to me that the real difference between conflicting views of the end times can be characterized simply as one side interpreting passages literally and the other side interpreting them figuratively. Indeed all eschatological views claim to interpret literal passages literally and figurative passages figuratively. The dispute, of course, is over which passages are which.

Take, for example, the differences between pretribulational and preterist eschatology (preterism being the view that much of biblical prophecy was actually fulfilled in the first century). Consider how literally or how figuratively a preterist would have to treat the scriptures in order to come to the following conclusions or how figuratively or literally a pre-tribulationalist who have to treat the scriptures to avoid them. Do the scriptures not literally say that:

before the apostles went through all the towns of Israel, the Son of Man came (Mt 10:23)?

before some men who had been standing with Jesus had tasted death, the Son of Man came in his kingdom (Mt. 16:28), and the kingdom of God came with power (Mk. 9:1 Lk. 9:27).

by the time of Jesus’ transfiguration, Elijah had already come (Mat. 17:12; Mk. 9:12)?

before the generation to whom Jesus was speaking passed away, all the events prophesied in the Olivet Discourse came to pass (Mt 24:34; Mk 13:30; Lk. 21:32):?

the gospel was preached to all nations (Mt 24:14)?

the abomination of desolation stood in the holy place (Mt 24:15)?

there was a great tribulation such had not been from the beginning of the world nor never will be again (Mt 24:20)?

the Son of Man came on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Mt 24:30)?

the Son of Man sent out his angels and gathered his elect from the four winds (Mt 24:31)?

from the time of Jesus’ first coming onward, He was seen seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mt. 26:64)?

before Jesus ascended into heaven, he had already been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28:18)?

while the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians was being written, the man of lawlessness was already being restrained (II Th 2:7)?

while John was writing his first epistle, it was already the last hour, for many antichrists had already come (I Jn. 2:18)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, the things that were prophesied in it were soon to take place (Rv. 1:1; Rv. 22:6) and the time for them was near (Rv. 1:3)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, Jesus’ coming was soon to occur (Rv. 3:11; 22:7; 22:12, 21)?

while the Book of Revelation was being written, Jesus was already ruler of the kings on earth (Rv. 1:5)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, Jesus had already made the saints a kingdom and priests to his God and Father (Rv. 1:6)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, John was already a partaker in the tribulation and the kingdom that were in Christ (Rv. 1:9)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, Jesus had already received authority over the nations to rule them with a rod of iron (Rv. 2:26-27)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, Jesus had already conquered and had already sat down with his Father on his throne (Rv. 3:21)?

while the book of Revelation was being written, the temple was still standing (Rv. 11:1)?

the only saints raised to life for the millennial period are those who die as martyrs in the great tribulation (Rv 20:4-5)?

Now are pretribulationalists really willing to employ a literal interpretation with passages like these? If not, how can they claim to be THE literalists over aginst these covenantal yayhoos? Whatever advantages pretribulational eschatology might have over a view like preterism, the freedom to interpret passages literally does not appear to be one of the strongest.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Let Me Count the Ways

Today some dear brothers asked me what I thought was to be gained by focusing so heavily on the doctrine of God’s covenant. I was able to name a few things on the spot, but having had time for a little more reflection, I offer a few additional ideas. The following is a more extensive (though certainly not exhaustive) list of biblical teachings which, I believe, can be understood in much greater depth when viewed in terms of God’s covenant. Indeed, there are some teachings on this list which, in my humble opinion, cannot be fully appreciated apart from such an understanding.

Please do not read me as saying that the covenant is the only important or even the most important doctrine in the Bible or that, without this knowledge, a person will utterly fail to grasp the scriptures. I simply propose that the doctrine is immensely valuable and worthy of much more attention than it typically receives in modern American Evangelical circles. I know that by merely listing these doctrines, I will not have proven the value of a covenantal understanding; that will take much more time. But I hope that by presenting this list I can at least make it clear why I believe the doctrine is so important.

It is my firm conviction that a proper understanding of God’s covenant is essential to a proper understanding of:

the cross work of Christ

the heavenly ministry of Christ

the true nature of salvation

our identity as God's people

our relationship with God as his people

the promises of God toward his people

the duties of God’s people toward God

the blessings for obedience and penalties for disobedience

the relationships of God’s people with one another

the true nature of church

the relationship between the church and Israel

the position of saints’ children before God

the nature of scripture in general

the relationship between the Old and New Testaments

the unfolding of biblical history

the final goal of human history

I intend first to take up the covenantal nature of Christ’s work on the cross.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

So What's Your Story?

The Scriptures present a story-- the story of God’s dealings with the human race. They tell us why God is dealing with mankind, what specifically He is doing, how He is doing it, where the story presently stands, and how it all will end. The scriptures, however, do not always present this full story in the most easily recognizable form. These core questions are not usually answered all in one place or in so many words. Rather, as we read the scriptures, we develop summaries, particular versions of the story, if you will.

As ought to be painfully obvious, not everybody who reads the scriptures comes up with the same summary of the scriptural story. Different interpreters and schools of interpreters come up with different versions, different answers to these core questions. Some of these versions, though they vary in certain respects, are still more or less compatible with one another. Many, however, are more in conflict; some are simply irreconcilable.

Differences in versions of this overall story are frequently the reason why Christians find themselves unable to agree on smaller particulars. This, of course, is because, having formed such summaries, we then use them as interpretive frameworks which we inevitably bring to bear upon every particular passage we read. Every issue is viewed through the lens of our version of the story. Many theological disagreements, then, are truly irresolvable unless the underlying conflict between the different versions is addressed.

This, certainly, is even more difficult than it sounds. There are some kinds of disagreements that can be resolved with reference to a single passage. “Christ had fourteen apostles.” “No, I believe he had twelve.” Let’s look it up…Ah you’re right. It was twelve.” Conflicts between different versions of the scriptural story, however, take immense amounts of time to resolve, because resolution requires treatment, not of one or two passages, but of the entire scriptures taken as a whole. Few people have the patience for this breadth or depth of discussion.

So what do we do? Do we dispense (pardon the pun) with forming versions of the story? This, of course, is entirely impossible. Versions of the scriptural story are like worldviews: it’s not a matter of “if” you have one; it can only be a matter of “which” one you have. Our task, then, is to strive for the right version of the story. Sure. That’s easy. Which one is the right one? The overly simple answer is that the right version, the right summary of the story of God’s dealing with mankind, can be none other than the version presented by the scriptures themselves. It cannot be one that is imposed upon the scriptures from the outside. Our task, then, is to work, to labor, to toil, to let the scriptures speak for themselves, to derive from them and from them alone, the story they tell as a whole.

Now to the point: Covenant theology is one version of the story of God’s dealing with mankind. It is similar to some versions; it is very different than others. Again, the differences between the covenantal view and non-covenantal views are the cause, I’m sure, of many hundreds of more particular theological disagreements. Covenant theology is not an idea that can be proven with reference to a single, certainly not even to a dozen passages. It is, like every other version of the scriptural story, a summary that men claim to have derived from the totality of scripture. It is therefore an idea that takes a whole, whole, whole lot of time to work through, and even more time to impress itself upon those who as of yet do not accept it. However,--and you knew I was coming to this-- covenant theology, I firmly believe, is the version of the story of God’s dealing with mankind that best comports with the totality of scripture, the version that is presented by the scriptures themselves.

What, then, according to covenant theology, is the story told by the scriptures, the story of God’s dealing with mankind? Why, according to this version, does God deal with mankind? what is he doing? how does he do it? where are we now? and how does it all end? There are, indeed, even different versions of the covenantal version, the distinctions between which would take a lifetime to investigate; but here’s a very humble summary of my very humble take on the matter:

Covenant theology teaches that God, in His dealings with mankind, is ultimately seeking to glorify Himself in His Son. To that end he has undertaken to redeem fallen mankind in Christ. God unfolds this redemptive work primarily through series of covenants whereby he takes certain men to be His people and takes His rightful place as their God, promising Himself and His blessings to them and requiring faith and obedience from them. In former days, God made these covenants by the shedding of animal blood and with certain families and nations, particularly with Israel. But He has now, in these last days, made a final covenant through the blood of Christ, a covenant into which men from every nation may be joined, and a covenant under which Jew and Gentile become fellow heirs of the of promises and fellow citizens of the commonwealth of Israel. Through this final, eternal and perfect covenant, God will ultimately redeem all nations. At the final consummation of history, all will be His people, and to all He will be God.

Now, of course, many who consider themselves to be non-covenantal may agree with most, if not all, of what I’ve said in this summary. The devil, as they say, will certainly be in the details, and it is into those details that I propose to go… in due time.

In the meantime, my most beloved non-covenantal brethren, consider this question: what’s your version of the story?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Little Ones

Pastor Wright has made the point that just because the former covenants were made with heads of households and their children, this does not prove that they were made with the children as children. Perhaps, by itself, it does not. There are certainly, however, other pieces of evidence that do come much closer to providing complete proof. One that I mentioned in the previous comment thread is that children, males at least, were required by the terms of the covenant to receive the sign of the covenant at the ripe old age of eight days. To fail to do so was not to miss out on the covenant, it was rather to break the covenant.

Here are some passages that speak more plainly to this issue:

"You are standing today
all of you before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, (Deut. 29:10-12).

all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess." (Deut. 31:11-13)

And afterward he read all the words of the law,
the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Josh. 8:34-35).

These passages make it quite clear that the Mosaic covenant, like the Abrahamic Covenant was made with the Israelites and their children, not as future adults, but as little children.

Gig at the BRD House

Just a reminder that CDP will be singing at the BRD House in Clayton Friday evening. Should be fun. Come on out.