The New Covenant
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995): 431-56
Rodney J. Decker*
A few dispensationalists argue that the churchÕs New Covenant differs from the New Covenant for Israel. Some contend that the church has no relationship to the New Covenant at all. Others--the majority position among dispensationalists--assert that the church participates in some aspects of the New Covenant. These three groupings are not as neat and tidy as might be expected, for the position of Newell and Stanford, for example, might be classed with either the first or second group. This article surveys the divergent views of the New Covenant held by dispensationalists.
View One: The Church Has a Different New Covenant
Although seldom advocated today, it was formerly popular among dispensationalists to propose that there are two different new covenants, one for Israel and one for the church. While different, the two new covenants have similarities: their name, their basis (the death of Christ), and some of their provisions.
Chafer advocated this view, though he did not develop it systematically or at any length. His position must be pieced together from scattered comments in his Systematic Theology and his other writings.
The eighth covenant is with Israel and conditions their life in the kingdom (cf. Jer. 31:31-34). . . . There remains to be recognized a heavenly covenant for the heavenly people, which is also styled like the preceding one for Israel a Ònew covenant.Ó It is made in the blood of Christ (cf. Mark 14:24) and continues in effect throughout this age, whereas the new covenant made with Israel happens to be future in its application. To suppose that these two covenants--one for Israel and one for the Church--are the same is to assume that there is a latitude of common interest between GodÕs purpose for Israel and His purpose for the Church. IsraelÕs covenant, however, is new only because it replaces the Mosaic, but the ChurchÕs covenant is new because it introduces that which is GodÕs mysterious and unrelated purpose. IsraelÕs new covenant rests specifically on the sovereign ÒI willÓ of Jehovah, while the new covenant for the Church is made in ChristÕs blood. Everything that Israel will yet have, to supply another contrast, is the present possession of the Church--and infinitely more.
This position is assumed throughout ChaferÕs writings, but nowhere in print did he discuss his basis for it or interact with opposing positions. This two-covenant view suffers from two flaws: Scripture never says there are two new covenants or juxtaposes them in the same context, and it is built on a theological presupposition rather than on exegesis of the text. This second problem is reflected in ChaferÕs statement (cited above) that Òto suppose that these two covenants . . . are the same is to assume that there is a latitude of common interest between GodÕs purpose for Israel and His purpose for the Church.Ó ChaferÕs determination to maintain a complete distinction between Israel and the church forced him to a conclusion that is exegetically indefensible.
In no New Testament passages are both supposed covenants distinguished one from the other. The only possible way to find two new covenants is to decide beforehand that anything with relevance to Israel cannot possibly relate to the church. On that basis, then, the interpreter decides whether the passage relates to Israel or the church. If it relates to Israel, then it must be the New Covenant for Israel; if it relates to the church, then it must be the New Covenant for the church. However, it is questionable that this approach represents proper exegesis.
The two-new-covenants view was never very widespread outside those circles influenced most heavily by Chafer. In their earlier writings both John F. Walvoord and Charles C. Ryrie sought to defend the position of their mentor. Ryrie, for example, argued that Òpremillennialism is weakenedÓ if the New Covenant in relation to the church in the New Testament is the same as that described in the Old Testament. Both Walvoord and Ryrie have since abandoned that position and today teach that the church participates in some aspects of the one New Covenant. Ryrie now states that Òthe OT revelation of the New Covenant links it with the nation Israel . . . the NT adds the truth that believers in Christ . . . are ministers of the New Covenant (II Cor 3:6).Ó Walvoord has also conceded that
there is one covenant with application to Israel and to the church and to anyone saved by the death of Christ. In Scripture the application of the New covenant is explicitly to the church in the present age and to Israel as a nation in the future as far as millennial blessings are concerned. The New covenant is also the basis for a new rule of life according to the dispensational setting of those involved.
Such a New covenant has already been brought in by the death and resurrection of Christ. . . . Both Israel and the church derive their salvation and spiritual blessing from the same covenant, that is, the covenant of grace made possible by the death of Christ. Although Blaising states that he Òknows of no dispensational scholar who holds it today,Ó Miles Stanford, best known for his Green Letters, is one of the few dispensationalists defending a similar position today. He finds roots for his understanding of the New Covenant in William R. Newellrather than in John Nelson Darby or Chafer. As a result StanfordÕs position differs somewhat from either of theirs. As noted already, this position might be classed under either this heading or the following one. Stanford speaks of two covenants, one for Israel and one that is not (thus the similarity to Chafer). But he also insists that the church has no relationship to IsraelÕs New Covenant (thus the similarity to Darby), and is not a party to the second New Covenant (contra Chafer).Stanford cites numerous dispensational writers and rebukes them for trespassing on IsraelÕs covenant by allowing any sort of association by the church with a Jewish covenant. His list is extensive, including Chafer, Darby, Dyer, John Feinberg, Grant, Hodges, Ironside, Kelly, MacArthur, Pentecost, Ryrie, Saucy, Scofield, Showers, Waltke, and Walvoord. All are guilty, Standord says, even for suggesting that Òwe get the benefit of [the new covenant]Ó (citing Darby). Such a lapse by Darby, the Ògrand champion of Dispensationalism,Ó is excused as an ÒinadvertentÓ failure Òto maintain . . . the rightly divided separation between Israel and the Church.Ó On the one hand Stanford argues that ÒGod has made no covenant with the Church.Ó On the other hand he asserts that Òthere is solid doctrinal evidence that IsraelÕs New Covenant is exclusively hers. It seems evident that there is another New Covenant for the Church--which is necessary to keep the Church totally apart from Israel.Ó The solution proposed is that Òwhile the Church has no covenant relationship with God, there is a New Covenant of which she is the beneficiary. It is the Eternal Covenant between the Father and the Son!Ó (by which Stanford refers to Heb. 13:20-21). In his explanation he cites Newell: ÒThis eternal covenant in which the God of peace and our Lord Jesus Christ are the [actors], and the sheep are the beneficiaries . . . this covenant [I say,] is the only covenant which believers [whether Hebrews or Gentiles] should keep in mind as already and eternally fulfilled in its conditions, and available to all.Ó Israel has no part in this covenant.
What of this benefit of the Blood of the Eternal Covenant will Israel ever know? Nothing! She has nothing in common with the heavenly Church.
. . . Under IsraelÕs New Covenant, by the indwelling of GodÕs Spirit, the law of the Kingdom will be manifested in the life of the converted Jew.
. . . To look to IsraelÕs future, earthly, law-governed New Covenant for blessings for or similarities to the heavenly Church--the Church in possession of the blessing of the Eternal Covenant? How could that be?
The New Covenant of the Old Testament is thus for Israel and is to be fulfilled in the future. According to Stanford the New Covenant referred to in the New Testament, also called the eternal covenant, was made between the Father and the Son--the church is not a party to this covenant (or any other), though it is the beneficiary of it. This New Covenant was referred to by Jesus in the upper room and by Paul (1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6).
The most serious difficulty this view faces is the fact that those who first heard Jesus speak of this New Covenant (Luke 22:20) would have immediately associated it with the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31. Yet Jesus did not say anything to correct such a supposed misconception. Nor did the Gospel writers clarify this when they wrote many years later. Though it is possible that two new covenants were intended, that is by no means a necessary conclusion and is certainly not spelled out in the Scriptures at any point.StanfordÕs position also raises serious questions regarding the salvation of Israel. If they receive no blessings from the blood of the eternal covenant, how will they be saved? This point does not invalidate the possibility of two covenants, but it does suggest that the implications and contrasts Stanford seeks to find in such a scenario are overdrawn and hazardous.
View Two: The Church Has No Relationship to the New Covenant
The minority position among dispensationalists today is that the church has no relationship to the New Covenant. This view was first championed by Darby in the 19th century. It is nearly impossible to find contemporary advocates of the position in print today, though a recent essay argues for a position similar to DarbyÕs. John Nelson Darby was the forerunner of dispensationalism as a systematic approach to Scripture. His comments on the New Covenant are sprinkled throughout his theological and expository works. The following extracts are representative of what he said on the subject. They are cited at greater length than others due to their obscurity.
The New Covenant is established in His blood. We cannot, in all the joy and fellowship with Christ above, forget what brought us into it [i.e., into the new covenant]. On one side it is a body broken and blood shed; on the other, it is Himself and all the perfectness of love in dying for us. We enjoy indeed all the essential privileges of the new covenant, its foundation being laid on GodÕs part in the blood of Christ, but we do so in spirit, not according to the letter.
He does not speak of the covenant in a direct way, as a privilege in which Christians had a direct part. The Holy Ghost, he says, declares, ÒI will remember no more,Ó etc. It is this which he quotes. He only alludes to the new covenant, leaving it aside consequently as to all present application.
The new covenant was made with Israel and Judah. Have we nothing to do with it? I do not say that. His blood has been shed. ÒThis is my blood of the new covenant shed for many.Ó All that God had to do to bring the Jews in was done: their bringing in is suspended because of unbelief. Then what do we get? He was minister of the new covenant, not of the letter, but of the spirit. We have the law in our hearts, and forgiveness. We have all the blessings of the new covenant. . . . I am one with the Mediator of the new covenant. I am, as part of the Church, a member of His body. . . . I am associated with Him. He has shed the blood on which it is all founded. . . . I have the effect of the blood. Thus in Chapter viii. [of Hebrews], there is an entirely new covenant, and the new makes the first old. In the letter, it is made with the house of Israel . . . not with us, but we get the benefit of it. . . . We are associated with the Mediator. It will be made good to Israel by and by. Paul was the minister of it in the Spirit, but he could not be as to the letter. . . . We have it not in the letter, but in the spirit of it, and so have all the value of it, because the way we get it is that the Mediator of it becomes our life--we are forgiven our sins--we are associated with the Mediator. He is our life, and we have all the blessings of the new covenant within the veil. We have all the blessings, for the very reason that it is not executed with the people for whom it was made. He left us all the blessing in dying--it [the New Covenant?] came into complete force directly. We are freed once for all through His death. There is no alteration of it. The blessings of the new covenant became available, valid after His death.
DarbyÕs view is that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 was made strictly with Israel and will be fulfilled with Israel in the future millennial kingdom. Because of IsraelÕs unbelief the covenant is not now in effect with that nation. Instead the church participates in the New Covenant (Christ Òbrought us into itÓ), not as a legal party to the covenant, but as recipients of the blessings of the covenant. It does not apply to the church directly as a legal covenant relationship, but as a gracious, spiritual benefit. (He usually speaks of all the blessings of the New Covenant that are the possession of the church, but at another point he speaks only of Òthe annexed circumstances of the covenant with which we have to do, not the formal blessings.Ó ) These benefits come by virtue of the believerÕs union with Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, and were placed into effect at the time of His death.This means that all the references in the New Testament are to the same New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah 31 (in sharp contrast to the two-new-covenants view). True, the church has no direct relationship to that covenant. She is not one of the legal parties of the New Covenant. Yet Darby does not hesitate to relate the church to that covenant. This covenant is now in effect, having been instituted with the death of Christ. There will be a future implementation (ratification?) with Israel that will result in the fulfillment of the New Covenant. However, nowhere does Darby write of the churchÕs participation in the covenant in terms of fulfillment. His view actually does not differ much from some forms of the third group of views to be discussed later, namely, that the church participates in some way in the New Covenant.An omission in DarbyÕs explanations relates to the provisions of the New Covenant. Although he speaks of Òall the blessings of the New Covenant,Ó the only specific blessing he notes is the forgiveness of sin. Even granting that he omits mention of the national and territorial provisions because they are related to future Israel, he never discusses the other spiritual blessings that are noted in the Old Testament. Since forgiveness is the specific blessing most frequently connected explicitly with the New Covenant in the New Testament, it is odd that he makes no mention of the Holy SpiritÕs indwelling and His associated ministries noted in 2ÊCorinthians 3. When other Old Testament items that have New Testament parallels (though not explicitly connected with the New Covenant) are added, the disparity is greater. This makes a complete statement of DarbyÕs view difficult.John MasterÕs position on the churchÕs relationship to the New Covenant is similar to DarbyÕs. The New Covenant is strictly for Israel in the future messianic kingdom. This covenant will guarantee the obedience of GodÕs people Israel so that the provisions of the Abrahamic, Palestinian, and Davidic covenants will be fulfilled. ÒThere is no need to apply the promises of IsraelÕs new covenant to the church because the same spiritual promises are specified for the church.Ó He says that the New Testament references to the New Covenant are all eschatological in orientation; none speak of the present fulfillment of the covenant. The only relationship between the church and the New Covenant is that members of the church are Òunited to the mediator of the new covenant.Ó Several aspects of MasterÕs defense of this position are worth noting. The LordÕs Supper texts are presented in an eschatological setting (e.g., reference to the coming of the kingdom of God). ÒIn the synoptic gospels, the blood . . . and not the covenant . . . is specifically said to be ÔforÕ the disciples.Ó PaulÕs reference in 1 Corinthians 11 is said to reflect a similar emphasis.
PaulÕs quotation of Jesus specifically identifies the breaking of the bread as a memorial of His death for the believers in Corinth. The expression Òfor you,Ó however, is not found in PaulÕs mention of the cup of the new covenant (v. 25; cf. Lk. 22:20). The absence of this expression with the mention of the cup might indicate that the bread is a memorial specifically for them but that the cup does not relate as directly to them but rather to GodÕs covenant faithfulness to IsraelÕs future.
If this seems somewhat awkward, Master responds that it provides both a retrospective, introspective, and prospective outlook. ÒIn this way GodÕs work past (death on the cross), present (physical and spiritual blessings), and future (the new covenant) would be in the mind of the believer celebrating the LordÕs Supper.Ó As he explains, ÒGodÕs faithfulness to Israel would be an evidence that God would be faithful to His church.Ó This explanation seems to be straining to find a distinction that is not obvious. It is also an argument from silence--what is not said is the basis of the interpretation. Such arguments are not persuasive. It would also seem unusual to view the table as a memorial that commemorates something done for another party. The concept of the ordinance as a memorial (ajnavmnhsi’) seems better suited to a direct reference rather than an indirect comment regarding a third party. Master also argues that the New Covenant in 2ÊCorinthians 3:6 refers to the character of PaulÕs ministry. He bases this on both the anarthrous construction (diakovnou’ kainh’’ diaqhvkh’) and on the assertion that gravmma refers not to the Old Testament Law but to the misuse of the Mosaic Law. Both of these arguments have difficulties. To argue that the reference is to qualitative factors may be legitimate, but simply the fact of an anarthrous construction by no means demands it. Additionally, to argue that gravmma does not refer to the Mosaic Covenant must either ignore numerous contextual indications to the contrary or impose undue creativity on the search for another explanation.Master does raise some significant questions regarding Òthe certainty of experiential obedience to the commands of GodÓ that must be addressed by any position that views the New Covenant as being in effect today. If the answer offered is that the fulfillment is only partial, Master responds by asking, ÒHow does a partial fulfillment of the New Covenant now differ from the partial obedience experienced under the Mosaic covenant?Ó His own position avoids this problem because it sees no fulfillment presently.This position comes closest to the traditional title given to such views: the church has no relationship to the New Covenant. It is a more consistent designation for MasterÕs view than for DarbyÕs.
View Three: The Church Participates in Some Aspects of the New Covenant
The majority view in dispensational circles today is that the church participates in some way in the New Covenant, but there is considerable diversity in the explanations that fall under this heading. Discussion in this section will be brief in order to survey several major representatives. The discussion is arranged chronologically, with evaluations given at the end.
Both editions of The Scofield Reference Bible state that the New Covenant Òsecures the perpetuity, future conversion, and blessing of Israel,Ó and Òsecures the eternal blessedness, under the Abrahamic Covenant . . . of all who believe.Ó More specific comment regarding the churchÕs relation to the covenant is not given. It is interesting that ScofieldÕs and ChaferÕs views of the New Covenant differed.Perhaps the seminal study of the New Covenant in recent years is KentÕs 1985 article in Grace Theological Journal. The following year Bruce ComptonÕs dissertation on the New Covenant, written under KentÕs supervision, was accepted at Grace Theological Seminary. Both take the same position in regard to the churchÕs relationship to this covenant. KentÕs article addresses the question specifically, while ComptonÕs dissertation is primarily focused on the Old Testament material. (The church question is considered in a 10-page chapter at the end of the dissertation.) The summary at the beginning of KentÕs article provides a helpful overview.
When Jesus mentioned the new covenant as he was instituting the bread and the cup, he clearly indicated its significance for the church. When the OT is examined to discover what this New Covenant involved, and when the NT is investigated for further clarification, it becomes clear that only one new covenant is in view, even though different groups may derive somewhat varying benefits from it. The essence of the new covenant is spiritual regeneration, enjoyed now by Christian believers and prophesied for national Israel at the second coming of Christ.
This position is summarized by stating that the covenant Òwill be fulfilled eschatologically with Israel but is participated in soteriologically by the church today.Ó Kent gives six reasons for holding this position. (1) A normal reading suggests only one New Covenant rather than two (contra Chafer). (2) Hebrews is addressed to Christians and the New Covenant is viewed as relevant to them. (3) Hebrews 12:23-24 connects both church believers (Òchurch of the firstbornÓ) and Old Testament believers (Òspirits of righteous men made perfectÓ) with the same New Covenant. (4) The disciples would have understood JesusÕ statements in the upper room to refer to Jeremiah 31. (5) Paul connected the New Covenant with the church in the institution of the LordÕs Supper and in his claim to be a New Covenant minister. (6) The new-old contrast in Hebrews 8 implies that the New Covenant replaces the Old Covenant--something the church does not have if her New Covenant is different from IsraelÕs (contra Chafer). The next major evangelical study of the New Covenant came with the first published volume to address progressive dispensational themes. WareÕs 30-page chapter on the New Covenant addresses a number of questions in greater detail than had KentÕs article and proposes somewhat different terminology to explain the relationship between Israel and the church. Ware views the New Testament perspective on the New Covenant as focusing on two key areas: the Cross (and the forgiveness it provided) and the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. These New Covenant blessings are Òapplied in the New Testament, at least in a preliminary form, to the spiritual seed of Abraham, the church.Ó This provision began to be realized with JesusÕ ministry, His death for sin providing the basis of the covenantÕs enactment. Not until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, however, was the covenant actually inaugurated. With that event the internalized ministry of the Spirit Òhas now begun to be realized.Ó Paul portrayed the benefits of this New Covenant ministry of the Spirit in 2 Corinthians 3 as enabling Òits covenant participants to live increasingly righteous lives through the Spirit.Ó The SpiritÕs role Òis fundamentally characterized in qualitatively new terms.Ó This suggests that ÒIsrael and the church share theologically rich and important elements of commonality [including Ôcoparticipation in the one new covenantÕ] while at the same time maintaining distinct identities.Ó In other words there is both continuity and relationship on the one hand, and discontinuity and distinction on the other. ÒThe one new covenant is fulfilled in distinguishable ways with Israel and the church.Ó The discontinuity comes most sharply into focus when considering the territorial and political promises of the New Covenant. These cannot be disregarded. ÒTo the extent that our hermeneutics are regulated by the principle of authorial intent, we are given ample reason to accept this literal rendering of what God, through the prophets, originally promised to his people Israel.Ó That is, authorial intent demands that there must be a future fulfillment of the New Covenant (including its territorial and political aspects) for the nation Israel.Continuity comes into play when it is recognized that the church experiences a preliminary and partial fulfillment of some aspects of the New Covenant. These include forgiveness of sin and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The partial nature of the fulfillment may be seen in the reality of incomplete obedience on the part of GodÕs people. Although Òforgiveness has been secured and the SpiritÕs indwelling presence enables covenant faithfulness,Ó it is evident that Òthe fullness of covenant fidelity . . . awaits the end of a process of growth in holiness.Ó Even though this is true, the New Covenant believer still has far greater resources in his struggle with sin than were available under the Old Covenant. The New Covenant promises assure that perfect and complete obedience will be a reality, but Òonly when Christ comes again and brings to completion the new covenant, which is now inaugurated in a preliminary way.Ó ÒThe same new covenant, because it contains spiritual as well as physical components, and because it is inaugurated partially first and fulfilled in its entirety later, can apply both to Israel and the church but does so in a form expressing differing manners of that application.Ó In SaucyÕs view the New Covenant was inaugurated with the death of Christ. The church is not experiencing complete fulfillment; only the spiritual provisions are now being implemented. ÒThe coming of Jesus . . . inaugurated their realizationÓ since the messianic era Òhas arrived. . . . Thus the promises of the new covenant have begun to take effect and are available to all who will receive the Messiah.Ó The material provisions will be fulfilled at the return of Christ for national Israel.The basis for this understanding of the New Covenant is fourfold. (1) JesusÕ identification of the cup as a representation of the New Covenant indicates that the Òcovenant would take effect through that which the contents of the cup signified, namely, his sacrificial death.Ó (2) The reference to Jesus as the Mediator of the covenant by the writer of Hebrews and (3) the change in priesthoods argue that the covenant is now in force. (4) PaulÕs identification of himself as a minister of the New Covenant also suggests the reality of the New CovenantÕs presence. ÒThe New Testament therefore clearly teaches that the promised New Covenant was inaugurated by Christ and now stands open to all who will receive it.Ó The inclusion of the Gentiles is substantiated by JesusÕ statement in Matthew 26:28 enlarging the scope of the New Covenant (ÒThis is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sinsÓ). ÒManyÓ is taken in the Semitic sense of ÒallÓ and is viewed as extending the scope of salvation to the world, Jew and Gentile alike. ÒA concept that was only implicit in the Old Testament thus became explicit in the New Testament, namely, that Gentiles are included in the new covenant.Ó They are not, however, included as covenant partners or as a Ònew Israel.Ó The extension of the New Covenant to the Gentiles is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that all people would be blessed through Abraham and his seed; never are the promises to the nation Israel applied to Gentiles or the church. The prophesied Old Testament content of the New Covenant in Bock and BlaisingÕs system is broader than the others considered. They include as part of the covenant not only the indwelling of the Spirit resulting in a new heart and forgiveness of sin, but also resurrection. These promises, particularly the promise of resurrection, Òexpand the notion of blessing in the Abrahamic covenant,Ó marking a quantitative and qualitative advance in GodÕs provisions for His people.As in the several previous positions, the New Testament basis for an inauguration of the New Covenant is found in JesusÕ institution of the LordÕs Supper (particularly in the statement relating the cup to JesusÕ Òblood of the covenant,Ó e.g., Luke 22:20), the Pauline instruction regarding that same observance (1 Cor. 11:25), the identification of Paul and his associates as Òservants of a new covenantÓ (2 Cor. 3:6), and the presentation of Christ in Hebrews as the Mediator of a New Covenant (e.g., Heb. 9:15).
It is indisputable that the New Testament views the new covenant predicted by Jeremiah and Ezekiel as established in the death of Jesus Christ with some of its promised blessings now being granted to Jews and Gentiles who are believers in Jesus. These are not blessings like those predicted by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They are the very same blessings which those prophets predicted. For the New Covenant which is presently in effect through Jesus Christ is not one which is like that predicted by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but it is that very same covenant which they prophesied which is in effect today. There are features promised in that covenant whose fulfillment has been delayed until the return of Christ (such as the national and territorial promises in Jer. 31:31, 36 and Ezek. 36:28 and 37:14). But these are features that go back to the Abrahamic covenant itself, and yet the New Testament speaks of the present blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The present inaugurated form of the new covenant is in fact the dispensational form in which the Abrahamic blessings are present today.
Although the New Covenant has been inaugurated, that inauguration is a partial and gradual one, and some portions of the covenant await a strictly future fulfillment. Even believers who enjoy aspects of it now do so in part. This is because there is a process of transformation underway that will not be consummated until immortality is also received as the end of the New Covenant provision of resurrection. This is reflected in PaulÕs reference (in a New Covenant context) to Òbeing transformed into the same imageÓ (thVn aujthVn eijkovna metamorfouvmeqa, 2ÊCor. 3:18). This group of writers (along with the Darby group) stands united in rejecting two new covenants. They vary somewhat in how they explain the details or in the divergent emphases. The end result is not much different, however. In this view the church is related in some way to the New Covenant prophesied in the Old Testament. Likewise all the writers in this group agree that the territorial and political aspects of the covenant are not being fulfilled today but will be fulfilled in the future messianic kingdom.Kent and Saucy place a greater emphasis on soteriology in the covenant, speaking frequently of regeneration and salvation as the essence of the covenant. Ware, Blaising, and Bock speak of the New Covenant primarily in terms of a believerÕs sanctification rather than regeneration. Saucy, Ware, Blaising, and Bock use inaugurated, Òalready-not yetÓ fulfillment terminology to explain the present aspects of the New Covenant. Kent and Compton speak only of the churchÕs participation in the covenant. Compton, in particular, argues against using fulfillment terminology because, as he defines Òfulfill,Ó it implies that the church is the complete fulfillment of the covenant, replacing Israel as the covenant partner. The other three writers do not associate replacement with fulfillment language. They often speak of partial fulfillment and distinguish various aspects of the covenant that are presently being fulfilled from the complete fulfillment, including the national and geographical elements for ethnic Israel, that await the earthly reign of the Messiah.All the writers in this third group agree that the New Covenant is related to the church in some way. Their arguments are based on JesusÕ words in the upper room, PaulÕs repetition of those words as he explained the churchÕs observance of the LordÕs Table, the reference to a New Covenant ministry, and the several references to the New Covenant in Hebrews. This suggests that the crux of the issue must be found in these four areas. Any position that postulates either two new covenants or that denies any relationship of the church and the New Covenant must address these passages in detail.
An Evaluation of new Covenant Options
The partners of the New Covenant are, in biblical terms, God and Israel. This is quite clear in the Old Testament. Although participation by Gentiles may well be implied in the Old Testament, they do not participate as covenant partners. Even if it could be argued that additional partners might be added, the New Testament never explicitly adds the church as a covenant partner. It seems best to avoid expressing the churchÕs relationship to the covenant in terms of covenant partnership--the church is not a party with whom the New Covenant is made.
The concept of a Òcomplementary hermeneuticÓ (in which God is seen as doing more but not less than He promised) may be a helpful way to view the churchÕs relationship to the New Covenant. The possible expansion or division of covenant blessings at this point is probably also legitimate. There is biblical precedent in the Abrahamic Covenant for partial implementation of covenantal provisions and for division of blessings to various parties, not all of whom must be covenant partners.
It has been argued that the ratification of the New Covenant took place at the cross and that it is therefore in effect in some way. This in no way denies that some aspects of the covenant must be future. There may indeed be a future ceremonial implementation of the national aspects of the covenant with Israel. This need not deny that the New Covenant is in effect or that it is based on a past ratification.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Luke recorded JesusÕ statement of the institution of the cup most fully. ÒThis cup,Ó He said, Òrepresents the New Covenant made on the basis of My blood and is poured out for youÓ (Luke 22:20). The Marcan version abbreviates and alters the wording slightly: ÒThis [cup] represents My blood that provides the covenantÓ (Mark 14:24; cf. Matt. 26:28). In PaulÕs record this statement is followed by the instruction, ÒDo this . . . in remembrance of MeÓ (1 Cor. 11:25). These words require the ratification of the covenant at the Cross. It is not that the Cross simply enabled a future ratification (as may be implied by Darby). The blood ceremony of the Cross instituted the covenant, and JesusÕ words instituted the ceremony of the LordÕs Supper, which commemorates that covenant. This is most evident in MatthewÕs record, since he followed the statement with the explanation that the Òpouring outÓ was for the purpose of (or, Òresults in,Ó eij’) forgiveness of sins--a present reality (both for Israel and the church). Nor is it simply that the blood which enables the New Covenant (for Israel?) is also poured out to provide forgiveness for the church. Rather, the cup is what is poured out, and this cup represents the New Covenant. The blood, cup, covenant, and forgiveness are inseparably linked.
Church Ordinance Directives
Since the LordÕs Table was instituted before the origin of the church (on the day of Pentecost), some argue that it was not intended to be observed by the church. PaulÕs instructions that the church continue this practice answer such protests, however. His words are almost identical to LukeÕs account. In light of the probable chronology of these two books it is almost certain that both recorded words that they received independently of each other. This argues strongly that the Pauline account should be understood in the same fashion as the Gospel accounts. Paul recorded JesusÕ words, not as simply a historical note irrelevant to church practice, but as significant words that communicate truth directly relevant to the church.It is not sufficient to emphasize, as Darby does, that the LordÕs Table simply calls believers to Òremember Him as a dead Christ,Ó implying that this is the extent of the memorialÕs significance for the church. The references to the cup as representative of the New Covenant and the forgiveness provided for sin are directly related to those who participate in the memorial. Paul did append a statement regarding the significance of the Table as a proclamation of the LordÕs death, but this does not require that His death is the only thing commemorated. Were that the case, there would be no need to repeat JesusÕ words. Indeed, it would give them a different force than originally intended.
New Covenant Ministry
In 2ÊCorinthiansÊ3:6-18 the Apostle Paul contrasted two covenants: the old Mosaic Covenant, and the New Covenant. On the one hand there are the tablets of stone, the letter, a ministry of death, and fading glory. On the other hand there are tablets of flesh (human hearts), the Spirit, a ministry of life, and surpassing glory. The first has passed away. The second is now reigning. Paul claimed to be a minister of this New Covenant.
The term ÒministerÓ does not imply an official, representative capacity (as might, e.g., oijkonovmo’, ÒstewardÓ). The word is diavkono’, Òservant.Ó All that Paul claimed is that he served under the auspices, not of the Old Covenant, but of the new. To argue, as does Master, that Paul referred simply to a new-covenant-like ministry, misses the point. Even though the construction is anarthrous, that does not demand a qualitative emphasis, since the noun modified is also anarthrous. At most, it would suggest the translation ÒNew Covenant ministers.Ó But what is implied by that statement? In light of the emphatic contrast between the two covenants in the context, Paul meant that he was serving under a new covenant. That can be none other than the New Covenant in contrast to the old. This requires the conclusion that the New Covenant is in force in the present age and that the church is in some way related to it.
Perspective of Hebrews
The New Covenant is encountered in Hebrews 7 as part of the discussion of the Melchizedek priesthood. This priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood and therefore the older covenant (proagouvsh’ ejntolh’’, Òformer commandment,Ó v.Ê18) has been set aside as weak and useless (ajsqeneV’ kaiV ajnwfelev’). In its place a better hope is introduced (ejpeisagwghV deV kreivttono’ ejlpivdo’, v. 19). This hope governs the relationship between God and His people--including both the author and his Christian readers (di= h|’ ejggivzomen tw’/ qew’/, Òthrough which we draw near to GodÓ). This better hope, identified in verse 22 as a better covenant (kreivttono’ diaqhvkh’), can be none other than the New Covenant, especially in light of the further explanation given in 8:6-7. This is followed in 8:8-12 by a citation of the New Covenant prophecy from Jeremiah 31 and is contrasted with the Old Covenant in Hebrews 8:6, 7, 9, and 13. It seems inescapable that this new, better covenant is relevant to the Christians whom the writer of Hebrews addressed.Hebrews 9 speaks of the Ògood things that are already hereÓ (v.Ê11) --probably a reference to the new privileges of relationship with God provided by JesusÕ death. These new things are said to be based on the SaviorÕs death (vv. 12-14). The writer then concluded (diaV tou’to) that Christ is the Mediator of the New Covenant (v. 15). That this must be the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 is substantiated by the contrast, in the same sentence, with the Òfirst covenantÓ (prwVth/ diaqhvkh/). The fact that Jesus is a Mediator of this covenant would seem to demand a present aspect of the covenant. This covenant is said to be in force and to have taken effect with the death of Christ the Testator (vv. 17-18). Since the Testator has died, the writer of Hebrews argued the covenant in question is in effect. He then demonstrated this same conclusion from a different perspective in verses 18-22. The first covenant was effected on the basis of a blood ceremony (alluding to Exod. 24). The deliberate parallel between JesusÕ words in the upper room (ÒThis is My blood of the covenant,Ó Matt. 26:28) and MosesÕ words at Sinai (ÒThis is the blood of the covenant,Ó Exod. 24:8; quoted in Heb. 9:20) cannot be avoided. The blood ceremony at Calvary has ratified a New Covenant (new in contrast to the old one) and placed it into effect.The argument of Hebrews 10 demands the same conclusion. The writerÕs point in this chapter hinges on the forgiveness provided by Christ. The shadow nature of the old provisions--good, necessary, and useful as they were in their time--is glaringly apparent in light of the Incarnation and sacrifice of the Son who came to do the will of the Father. In place of the repetitive and temporary nature of sacrifices repeated year after year (v. 1) and daily that Òcan never take away sinsÓ (v. 11), there is now Òthe offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for allÓ (v. 10). This priest offered for all time one sacrifice for sins (v. 12). This line of reasoning is concluded by the citation of Jeremiah 31:33-34 described as the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Hughes explains that this Òhas the effect of clinching and bringing to its conclusion the long argument regarding the nature of ChristÕs high priesthood and the perfection and finality of his atoning sacrifice, whereby the New Covenant is brought to its fulfillment.Ó Reference to this covenant and to the forgiveness it provides requires relevance of the covenant and its provisions to the readers, not simply as similar in nature, but in the form of participation in the blessings of the covenant. In Hebrews 12:24 Jesus is referred to as Òthe mediator of a new covenant.Ó A present mediatorship of the covenant is necessitated by the context. A key contextual phrase is Òyou have comeÓ (v. 22). The stative aspect of the perfect tense describes an existing state of affairs. This statement is juxtaposed with the immediately preceding paragraph (the same verb introduces v. 18) that describes IsraelÕs ÒcomingÓ to the mountain. IsraelÕs historical ÒcomingÓ is contrasted with the Christian readersÕ coming--not this time to a physical mountain, but to Christ. The reference cannot be to the future arrival of Christians in heaven or the new Jerusalem, but must be a reference to their salvation. The phrases that follow describe realities of the spiritual realm to which they have come. Zion must be taken figuratively; it is the Òheavenly Jerusalem,Ó not the physical city in Palestine. If these descriptions describe the present realities of the believerÕs position, then the context of the New Covenant mediatorship of Jesus in verse 24 would seem to be a present function of an inaugurated covenant rather than an eschatological role. ÒYou have come,Ó the author of Hebrews wrote, in essence, Òto Jesus, who is now mediating the New Covenant.ÓConclusionBased on the material presented in these two articles, the following position regarding the relationship of the New Covenant and the church would seem to be both defensible and adequate to account for the biblical data.The New Covenant, prophesied in the Old Testament to be made with Israel, was ratified at the Cross and implemented as a replacement of the Mosaic Covenant. It is presently the basis on which anyone relates to God and it governs the life of all believers. The church, though not a formal partner of the New Covenant, participates in the covenant both as a subject of its rule of life and as a recipient of promised Abrahamic Covenant blessings for Gentiles that have come through the Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ.This explanation does not demand that the church ÒfulfillÓ the covenant; that remains for national Israel in the future millennium. It does acknowledge that there is more involved in the New Covenant than could have been known simply from the Old Testament. This in no way changes the meaning of those passages, but does allow for GodÕs doing more than He promised (though it will be no less than promised). The term Òpartial fulfillmentÓ is not necessary. If fulfillment is used to describe the relationship of the covenant partners, then fulfillment in any respect should be viewed as future. ÒParticipationÓ is a better term to describe the present aspects as it both avoids replacement concepts (the church replacing Israel in fulfilling the covenant) and also explains the partial nature of the obedience evident in the experience of the church. Even though the ministry of the Holy Spirit has changed dramatically, based on the ratification and implementation of the New Covenant, the full ramifications of that ministry will not be experienced until the covenant enters the fulfillment stage in the future messianic kingdom.Some protest that if the church is related to an Old Testament covenant in this way the distinction between Israel and the church is endangered. In response the following points may be briefly noted.The church is a mystery and thus was not revealed in the Old Testament. Ephesians 3:2-6 argues that the church (Òthe body,Ó v. 6) is a mystery (v. 3) that was not made known to people in earlier generations (v. 5). The Gentiles and Jews are joint heirs in one body, namely, the church (v. 6). Paul did not use the word ÒmysteryÓ to mean something difficult to understand. It is rather something that was formerly hidden--unknown by humankind (although known by God)--but now revealed to man. The significance of this passage is that information about the church should not be expected in the Old Testament. It was unknown, for God had not revealed that His eternal plan included the formation of a group of believers drawn from both Jews and Gentiles following the coming of Christ. From an Old Testament perspective, it was unexpected that a different group, related to God in a different way than Israel, would be GodÕs vehicle for taking the gospel to the world in the interval between MessiahÕs first and second advents. That does not mean, however, that this was unexpected or unplanned by God, nor should it be viewed as an interruption in GodÕs program. If the church was a mystery in the Old Testament, how could the Old Testament indicate any relationship between the church and the New Covenant? The Old Testament prophets ministered specifically to Israel and were concerned primarily with IsraelÕs relationship to the New Covenant. Even if the prophets had known that there would be a church and that the church would participate in the New Covenant, that would not require that they mention the churchÕs involvement.The Old Testament does not say that only Israel will participate in the New Covenant. The Old Testament does say that the New Covenant is made with Israel. That is different, however, from saying that the New Covenant is only for Israel. The New Testament does not violate Old Testament statements when it includes more than was revealed in the Old Testament.
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