Dr. Bruce Ware: Comparing Covenant and Dispensational Theology
MUSINGS ON BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THESE TWO THEOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
These are both movements that really affect a large swath of the evangelical Church with Covenant Theology affecting so much of the Church in the Reformed tradition and Dispensationalism largely through the first study Bible that came out, The Scofield Reference Bible (that was the only one when I was growing up; my folks had the Scofield Reference Bible). It made a big impact on Dallas Seminary and all of its graduates when Dallas was putting out so many pastors for Bible churches and independent Baptist churches. The Bible school movement was largely Dispensational. Moody Bible Institute and most of the Bible schools around the country were Dispensational. Some other seminaries that were Dallas-influenced are Talbot Seminary, Biola University (it used to be Bible Institute of Los Angeles and that is where Biola comes from; J. Vernon McGee and a number of people connected with Biola were Dispensational), Western Seminary (where I went) used to be a Dallas clone and it was Dispensational. So many areas in evangelical life in North America were affected by it.
We need to take a brief look at these two views. One heartening thing I will tell you at the beginning is it is one of those wonderful areas where, though there was such disagreement forty years ago, to the point where there were strong accusations being made by both sides about the other, today there has been a coming together of these movements by sort of progressives of both sides. With Modified Covenantalists and Modified Dispensationalists, the differences between them now, among those Modified groups, is minor in significance. It is not that much to worry about, to be honest with you. It is one area where godly, humble biblical scholarship and theological reflection has resulted in both sides being willing to acknowledge the excesses of their traditions and make changes. The result of that has been to come together in a marvelous way. If you want to read something that talks about this well, Dr. Russ Moore wrote his dissertation on the changing theological positions of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology as that affects socio-political action. But in order to get that “as it affects” part, he had to do quite a bit of theological ground work in describing what was going on in these two movements. A large portion of his dissertation relates to mega-changes, and the mega-shifts that have taken place in both of these movements. It is very well done.
A. Covenant Theology
1. General Description – Two Broad Covenants
Covenant theology holds, in terms of its basic understanding of Scripture, that we should understand the Bible as portraying fundamentally two covenants: a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace.
In the Covenant of Works, God made a covenant with Adam in the Garden, according to Covenant Theology. Namely, if you obey me and follow me and resist eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; if you stay away from that, if you don’t eat of that tree and follow me in obedience, then you will ultimately receive life. Covenant theologians have seen this as something more than the life of Adam then. It is not just a continuation of his life in the garden temporally, but what we would speak of as eternal life. They propose that there must have been a probationary period in which this testing was undertaken. Had Adam passed the test (who knows how much longer it might have been; maybe two more days and the test would have been over; we just don’t know), then he would have received eternal life because of his works. But if Adam failed the test, if he were to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, then we know from the text, in the day that you eat from it you will surely die (Gen 2:17). So death for disobedience; life, presumably a better life, a greater that the life he had now for obedience.
Covenant theologians acknowledge that the first part of this, the promise of life for obedience, is not stated explicitly in Scripture. But they think that it is implied by the negative statement, “If you eat of it you will die”. If you don’t eat of the tree, then you would receive the gift of eternal life. If that is the case, then it must be something different than what you have now, and if that is the case, there must be a probationary period. There must be a time period after which this would be given. All of that follows from what they know to be the case; namely, there is command given that if you eat of the tree you will die. The other part of it is spin off from that.
We all know that Adam failed the test and brought death upon himself and all of his progeny. Romans chapter 5 tells us that in Adam all sin and deserve his death. So we learn from Paul in Romans 5:12 and following that all die in Adam’s one sin.
In order to save sinners, God brings about another covenant. This is not a Covenant of Works because sinners could never work to make the payment necessary to satisfy a holy God on account of the offense that has been committed. The guilt is too great, and the offense is too serious. Another Covenant of Works (work it off now, pay your dues, pay off your debt) won’t work for human beings, for sinners. God inaugurates, instead, a Covenant of Grace, whereby his Son will pay the penalty for sinners, and those sinners in exchange will receive the righteousness of Christ. It is quite a deal for sinners. We give Christ our sins and he gives us his righteousness.
Double imputation is part of this understanding as well. Our sin is imputed to Christ, so he pays the penalty for our guilt and it is charged against him even though he doesn’t deserve to pay it. That’s what imputation means at that point; our sin is charged against Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us; it is credited to our account by faith – justification.
How much of the Bible does the Covenant of Works cover, what does it span? The Covenant of Works covers Genesis 1, 2 and part of Genesis 3 where the sin takes place. What about the Covenant of Grace where sinners now cannot be saved by works? If they are going to be saved it has to be by grace? Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. The point of this is that it leads Covenant theologians, in the traditional understanding, to think in terms of the broad sense of the holistic nature of virtually all of the Bible, from Gen 3 on, which is most of the Bible. Basically, the whole Bible fits under this Covenant of Grace notion. This leads to, in Covenant Theology, a strong sense of uniformity throughout the Bible, that is a strong sense of continuity. There is one thing God is doing from the sin in the garden and on, that is he is providing for human sin and saving the people. The Covenant of Grace spans both Testaments; it spans Israel and Church. In that sense, it leads to a unified sense in all of Scripture: Old and New Testaments together.
2. Covenant Hermeneutic
Because of this sense of unity that takes place, the hermeneutic of Covenant Theology tends to see in Scripture a unified teaching in both Testaments. So there is less of a notion in Covenant Theology that new things come about in divine revelation at new periods of revelation, rather there is more of a notion of simply amplifying or explaining with grater clarity or precession what has been there from the beginning. So for example, in Covenant Theology there is much more a tendency to look back in the Old Testament and see the same kinds of things as you do in the New Treatment. I’ll give you an example of that; some of you know that I teach an elective on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The older Covenant theologians (some of the more recent ones, Richard Gap and Sinclair Ferguson have not have gone this route) would tend to see everything that is true of the of the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Testament, his indwelling, his sealing, his empowering that is true for New Testament believers, is also true for Old Testament believers because of this uniformity idea. So if you ask the question what is new at Pentecost or new in the New Covenant? It is more a sense of extension of coverage than it is qualitative experience in the lives of true believers. God will extend this to the ends of the earth: Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. To the ends of the earth means extending this beyond the boundaries of the restricted members of the people of God. It is going to go public, nationwide, worldwide. My view is that this is a mistake to think this way. Instead there is a radical new happening when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost that the Old Testament actually prophesied and predicted was going to happen that would make a tremendously different change to the people of God. So you really have to have, it was once this way but now is this way. There really is a change, a marked qualitative kind of change that takes place in the coming of the Spirit in the New Covenant than in the Old. This is a more Dispensational way of thinking. Take a text like Romans 8:3-4
“For what the Law could not do [under the law this didn’t happen, the Law couldn’t do this], weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [we are talking history now, at this point in history, when Christ comes], and as an offering for sin, Him condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) So that looks to me like we ought to read it as under the Law things were one way, but now that the Spirit has come, Christ has come, things are different. But if you read the Old Covenant writers on the Holy Spirit, you will find a very strong urge to assume that New Testament teachings about the Holy Spirit must be true of Old Testament saints as well.
A similar thing might be said of Christology. There is a very strong sense of trying to see as much as possible of Christ in the Old Testament. Luke 24 makes it very clear that Christ taught concerning himself from the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (Luke 24:27).
It is a matter of which texts, what they are saying, and to what extent. There is a tendency in Covenant Theology to see more than what others might see from other traditions. The main point I am trying to stress here is that with this Covenant hermeneutic there is a tendency to see uniformity of content between the Testaments.
3. Israel and the Church
One of the places where this becomes both the clearest and most decisive in terms of separating covenant and Dispensational views is how Covenant Theology understands Israel and the Church. Here again, with the basic hermeneutic of uniformity, Covenant Theology would view true Israel as the people of God, that is, true Israel, saved Israel as the people of God and the Church as the people of God. There is really one people of God in both Testaments, both saved by faith, both serving the same God, both the special objects of God’s saving love. Israel really could be thought of and spoken of as the Old Testament Church. The Church in the New Testament can rightly be thought of as New Testament Israel. So we have Old Testament Church, that’s Israel, and we have New Testament Israel, that’s Church. So there really should not be seen significant differences as they are the people of God. Granted Israel is also ethnic and the Church is multiethnic. But apart from that difference, as it relates to nation and ethnicity, we ought to understand the people of God, as believers, constituting the same group of people.
What about promises made to Israel that seem to relate to a time in the future; for example, Israel coming back to her land, or her ultimate salvation by God. What about promises that look like they are eschatological in the Old Testament, and are not fulfilled at any particular point in history in the Old Testament or New Testament period? What do we say about those promises that relate to Israel? God makes the promise, I’ll take from your lands where you have been and I’ll bring you back to your land and you shall have one God, and I will reign over you, and I will destroy your enemies. All of these promises given to Israel, what should we do with those? In Covenant Theology, there is a very strong tendency to go in the direction of saying those promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the New Testament Israel – the Church. So the Church becomes the object of those promises.
In Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see Old Testament promises as coming straight forward and being fulfilled in the Church. So the land promises (you will be back in your land) shouldn’t be understand as literal land; there is not going to be a day when the ethnic people of Israel occupy literal geography; that is not the point of those promises. It is rather that they will have their kingdom, and it is a spiritual kingdom.
So the promises to Israel are to be fulfilled in a spiritual manner in the Church. When it talks about the Jews being saved, we are all Jews. Remember Paul in Romans 2 says, we are circumcised in Abraham. We are, by faith, part of the seed of Abraham in Galatians (Galatians 3:16). We should understand that all of us are Jews spiritually because we are tied in through Christ, through the seed of Abraham. After all, the promise in Genesis 12 was that through Abraham all the nations in the world will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3). So we are tied in.
What about the reign of Christ over nations? This is not a political military reign; it is a spiritual reign as people from every tribe and nation are brought into subjection to Christ. So in Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see, basically, Israel and the Church as equated spiritually.
One place that you see that Reformed Baptists differ is with pedobaptism. In Presbyterian, Anglican, and the majority of reformed theology, they hold to pedobaptism. Here the same thing is happening; Israel circumcised their people as a sign of the Covenant and we are the new Israel. The difference is that our sign of the Covenant is a sign that is Christological in nature because we have been brought together in Christ; everything in the Old Testament pointed to him. Christ has now come, so the sign of the Covenant changes to baptism as a mark of Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as Israel’s sign of the covenant was given to infants, so the Church’s sign of the Covenant should be given to infants. Honestly, the strongest argument for pedobaptism (in my judgment) is a theological argument; if you try to argue texts, you run out quickly. In a used bookstore in Springfield, Illinois (we were visiting there as a family to look at all of the Lincoln memorabilia that was there), I spotted a rather sizable book on the shelve; the spine was pretty fat. It said on it, All That The Bible Teaches About Infant Baptism. That was the title of it. Wow, I thought, this is a thick book; it is impressive. So I took it off of the shelf and opened it up and it was an empty book. It was just all blank pages. They were charging something like $18 for it, so I didn’t buy it, but I wish I had. I would like to have a copy of that book. The argument is really a theological one: Israel, Church, sense of unity, and hence a very strong case is made on theological grounds for pedobaptism.
One question is: How do they understand a more unified sense of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament when it looks as though in the Old Testament there are these special works with selective people? What they argue, in particular, are primarily theological arguments. These people had to be regenerated. How does regeneration take place? We know from John 3, it must come from the Holy Spirit. So you see how this works; these people exercised faith didn’t they? Where did faith come from? It must have come from the Holy Spirit. So it is a theological argument that utilizes what the New Testament says the Holy Spirit does. It sees those same actions or similar actions in the Old Testament and concluded that Holy Spirit must do these things as well. It is a very important question of how to account for Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. How do you account for a Daniel and a Joseph who exercised tremendous trust in God through very difficult experiences? It is a very good question, and I think that we just have to work very hard in the Old Testament to try to understand what is said there and what is happening there and take seriously the notion that something new takes place. Roman 8:3-4, says, “In order that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Those are remarkable words. Or in Galatians 3 (Galatians 3:24, to be precise) the Law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. It is a tough question; I’ll admit it. I think that are some things that can be said, but it’s why this theological reasoning is persuasive to a number of Reformed people. The problem is so many Old Testament texts indicate the selectivity of the Spirit at work in the Old Testament and then there are specific texts that promise a future day that matches New Testament reality. Ezekiel 36:27 says, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” You read that and realize the holiness that He requires of his people will come about when the Holy Spirit comes and works in them. Think of 2 Corinthians 3:3, the letter written on their hearts by the Spirit. This is New Covenant.
1. General Description – Progressive Revelation
Dispensationalism is an understanding of the Bible, of biblical history, that notices and points to distinguishable Dispensations or administrations of God’s purposes, will, and relationships with people in general and particularly his people.
The key idea in Dispensationalism is progressive revelation. This is the bottom rock notion in this understanding of reading the Bible. Progressive revelation means, essentially, that God provides revelation at a particular time and that revelation provides certain commandments, requirements, warnings and promises. Some of those commands, warnings, and promises may continue beyond when that revelation is given, beyond the next period when great revelation is given. Or some revelations may stop at that particular point. When new revelation comes with Noah, or then with Abraham, or with Moses (think of these periods where new great revelation is given), some things continue on, and some things continue all the way through. Obey the Lord your God; that is from the beginning right to the end. In the revelation given to Adam in the garden, the command, “You shall not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day you eat of it you will die,” (Gen 2:17) doesn’t apply to you and me anymore, specifically as a commandment. Where is that tree? How could you eat of it? You can’t. So it applies to Adam very much so. When revelation comes, there may be new things that start up that were not here before.
Noah is told that he can eat animals; that is part of the statement made to Noah after the flood. He can eat these animals (Genesis 9), but he cannot kill human beings (I take it that continues). I don’t find vegetarianism theological defensible. Both because of what God says to Noah about eating animals (which I assume continues), and certainly the prohibition of killing humans continues. Nor do you find it defensible in light of Israel, in what they are permitted to eat. And Jesus who pronounced all foods clean is obviously talking about unclean foods, which would include pork. So I guess you can have a bacon or a ham sandwich.
The point is that with progressive revelation, you see some things that are new which continue only for a time, and there are other things that might start, ones that weren’t here before, which continue all the way through, and some things which are just for that time period itself. This, then, amounts to different dispensations, different ways in which God administers his relationship with people. The most obvious example is the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. We now have in this time period these laws that relate to the sacrificial system; and it is clear that they last until Christ comes who fulfills what they are pointing to: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When God’s Lamb comes, then you don’t have to keep taking your lamb to the priest to be slaughtered. When the High Priest reigns, you don’t need a priest any longer. So here we have in this time period laws that are very relevant, extremely relevant, in exact literal detail. Fulfilling those Laws is extremely important in this time period, then when Christ comes they end. You don’t take a lamb; you don’t go to the priest; the priest doesn’t have to prepare himself for the Day of Atonement. All of these things that were there before are done. This is the main idea of Dispensationalism. It is progressive revelation. When revelation comes you need to notice what things have quit what was revealed before, what things start that weren’t revealed before and what things endure. Whatever you come up with in that time period marks that particular dispensation as the revelation of God in that time period.
2. Dispensational Hermeneutic
This notion of progressive revelation has lead Dispensationalist to interpret the Bible, to look at biblical history and interpret where you are in the Bible, very differently than the way Covenant theologians look at the Bible. The tendency in Covenant Theology is to look for uniformity; there is one Covenant of Grace that spans virtually the entire Bible. So there is a tendency to see this uniformity; there is one people of God. In Dispensationalism the mindset is very different. It is instead to notice discontinuity, differences in how God relates to people depending on the revelation that is given at that particular time. It is much more attuned to the discontinuities between various dispensations and to respect those, to be careful not to interpret something in this dispensation as you are reading it from a different time period. So you are not being respectful of what it means here. Charles Ryrie no doubt overstated it in his book, Dispensationalism Today, but he gave this threefold sine qua non (a Latin phrase meaning without which there is none) of Dispensationalism or the essential markings of Dispensationalism. One of them is a literal hermeneutic. He didn’t mean you interpret poetry literally. John kicked the bucket means that John died; that is the way you are supposed to interpret it. He didn’t mean literal in the sense of ignoring metaphorical poetic meanings or terms. What he meant by that is, when reading the Bible, understand what an author intends to say within the historical context of when he is writing it, so that you don’t read back into it things from the future or read forward of things in the past. You take care to read it within its own dispensation. That is what he meant by literal hermeneutic; to understand what the author meant then and there as he spoke at that time.
3. Israel and the Church
A literal hermeneutic has led to, in particular, the way Israel and the Church are evaluated. It is clear in Dispensationalism that Dispensationalists insist upon seeing Israel as Israel and the Church as the Church. There is a strong discontinuity between the two. The Church starts as Christ built it. Remember Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my Church.” Therefore, we shouldn’t talk about it in the Old Testament, even though the term ekklesia is used in the Septuagint (it is not being used in the technical sense, it just means a gathering of people together). We shouldn’t talk about Old Testament Israel as the Church. Jesus said, “I will build my Church, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes” (Acts 1:4), “And when he comes he will anoint you with power” (Acts 1:8). So Pentecost is the beginning of the Church. We shouldn’t talk about Israel as the Old Testament Church nor should we talk about the Church as the New Testament Israel because Israel is an ethnic national group and we are multiethnic; we are multinational. It is confusing to talk of the Church as Israel.
So as it pertains to these promises we talked about under Covenant Theology, what do you do with the Old Testament promises that particularly relate to Israel? How do understand these when God says through the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:24, I will take you from the lands where you have been and bring you back to your land. And he goes on to say at the end of Ezekiel 37 that the Messiah will reign as your king; David will reign as your king. What do you do with these promises that relate to a future for Israel where the Messiah is reigning over his people in the land, the nations are subjected to the Messiah, and there is peace on earth; what do you do with these?
If these promises have to do with Israel, instead of seeing them fulfilled in the Church (because the Church is not Israel), you see them fulfilled at a future time when God will finish his promised work with Israel. There is a sense in which the premillennial view for Dispensationalism is supported because of Old Testament promises to Israel whether or not you have Revelation 20. Revelation 20 is a really nice extra to have because it gives you the exact time period, a thousand years. It makes it crystal clear that this comes after Christ has returned to earth and he reigns upon the earth for this thousand year period. That is nice to know all that, but we didn’t need Revelation 20 to know there had to be a time period in the future after Christ returned for God to finish his work with Israel. Why? Because these promises back here talk about land, Messiah, Jerusalem. According to a literal hermeneutic, what did Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Zachariah mean when they said “Jerusalem”? What did they mean when they said “in your land”? What were the authors intended meanings of these terms: land, Israel, Messiah, and other nations? They understood those things to be referring to physical realities. Have they happened yet? Has Messiah come? No. Is Israel in her land? Hence all the hoopla over 1948; this is when Dispensationalism just went nuts because here we have what appears to be (of course people said it much stronger than that back then) God’s movement to begin the fulfillment of bringing Israel back to her land to fulfill all of these promises. Then there were all kinds of speculation that came in terms of date setting and that kind of stuff.
In my judgment, Dispensationalism has far more merit as a Biblical Theology than its popularizers have allowed it to have in public perception. The popularizers went too far; they extended it into the unknowable. It was speculation but stated as fact. This has hurt the Dispensational movement, in my view.
So for dispensationalists, God is going to come back and wipe out the nations and save Israel, that will happen during the tribulation and he (The Messiah) is going to reign in Jerusalem over his people in the Millennial period fulfilling Old Testament promises.
C. Modifications of both Dispensational and Covenantal Understandings
What has happened, essentially, is that the notions that Israel equals the Church or Israel is totally separate from the Church have been challenged by both representatives in the Covenantal tradition and representatives in the Dispensation tradition. Both have come to see that a better model is one in which there is continuity and discontinuity together. Something like a screen between the two rather than a complete equation or a complete separation of the two. Some things can pass through (hence the screen), yet there are differences between them.
One the Covenant side there has been a recognition, for example, that we really should think of a future for Israel. There was a time when very few Covenant theologians would deal with Romans 11 (Roman 11:17, 23, 24, 26) where Paul talks about the olive tree and the natural branches were cut off and the unnatural branches were grafted on. But a time will come when he will graft the natural branches back on to the tree; that is Israel. That analogy is so helpful. How many trees are there in that analogy? One. How many kinds of branches? Two. Do you have one people of God or two? If you mean one people in Christ, then there is one. If you mean specifically designated Jewish people, for whom God has specifically promised salvation, verses the rest of God’s saved people, then it is two. How else do you understand the natural branches and the unnatural branches? Doesn’t Paul continue to think of the people of God as comprised of Jews and Gentiles? At the moment, most of those Jews are not saved; there is a hardening that has taken place. That is how he describes it in Romans 11. This hardening has taken place, so the Gospel has gone to Gentiles, but the day will come when he will graft the natural branches back on. Who are those people? They are Jews; they are going to be saved. So Paul says, all Israel will be saved. It was difficult for Covenant theologians and Covenant interpreters (a few did but not many) to see that as ethnic Israel. But increasingly in this more modified understanding, you are finding more and more Covenant theologians, people from the Covenant tradition acknowledging that, yes, this is what Paul means; he means that there will be some kind of future salvation of Jews – literal ethnic Jews. Whether this has to happen in the way Dispensationalist conceive it in a tribulation period where vast persecution takes place, tremendous destruction of people and material well-being in everything across the world, and at the same time massive conversions of Jews to Christ, or whether it happens in this age through some kind of evangelistic effort is really beside the point. That is a secondary question. Where there is much more agreement among Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians (in the Modified groups) is that it does look like there is future salvation of Israel.
Dispensationalists have changed. I think it might be fair to say that they have done more changing than the Covenant side. I think that is correct. In other words, Dispensationalists have recognized a bit more that has needed to be changed in their views and tradition than has necessarily been the case in with Covenant theologians.
I will give an example of this. In fact, I have written an article on this in the book that Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising edited entitled, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. I have a chapter in there on the New Covenant. Here is basically what I talk about in there. In the old view for Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing and the Church is another and you can’t mix the two. Here you are, reading your New Testament and you hear Jesus say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25). And Paul says, I am a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). And Hebrews speaks of the Old Covenant is taken away, and the New Covenant has come (Heb 8:13). The New Covenant is the Covenant for the Church, the Old Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, the Covenant for Israel.
What do you do with how Jeremiah 31-34 relates to the New Covenant for the Church, the New Covenant that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3, where he says he is a minister of the New Covenant? How do you relate Jeremiah 31 to that? There is a real problem with that because Jeremiah 31 (Jeremiah 32:31) says, “Behold, days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In traditional Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing, the Church is another and here you have this statement about a new covenant with the house of Israel, so what relation does this Jeremiah 31 New Covenant have to do with the 2 Corinthians 3 New Covenant, of which Paul is a minister? Jesus says, “This cup is the New Covenant of my blood”(Luke 22:20), and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25 repeats that, so what is the relation between the two? The dispensational answer is that they are two separate Covenants. Traditional Dispensationalism had a two New Covenant view. Because Jeremiah 31 had to be for Israel, whatever Paul is talking about, whatever Jesus is talking about, and (here is where it get really messy) whatever Hebrews is talking about has got to be a different covenant.
Now why did I say that, here is where it gets really messy in reference to Hebrews? Because Hebrews 8 and 10 quote Jeremiah 31 twice (Hebrews 8:8,9; 10:16) in making the point that the Old Covenant, the Mosiac Covenant is done away and New Covenant, to quote Jeremiah 31, “has taken its place”. Even despite that, they maintain this difference. This is how strong the theological commitment was to two peoples, Israel and the Church; keep them separate and don’t confuse them. It was so strong that even with Hebrews starring at them quoting Jeremiah 31, they insisted on two different Covenants. The text won with Progressive Dispensationalists (That is what they are called). Craig Blaising, who taught here for years, is one of the main leaders of this movement. He and Darrell Bock at Dallas are the champions of Progressive Dispensationalism. They argue that we have got to say that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 is the Church’ New Covenant. What else would Jesus be referring to? The phrase, New Covenant, is only used one time in the Old Testament; it is in Jeremiah 31. Hebrews quotes it and says the old has passed and this has come in its place. So we have got to understand this is to be the Church’s New Covenant. In my article here is what I proposed: Are we to say then that everything that Jeremiah 31 talks about is fulfilled now in the Church? In other words, should we do this sort of an interpretation of Jeremiah 31; in which we have an Old Testament promise and we draw the arrow straight forward and say Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled in the Church period? I say no. Rather, I think that we draw an arrow forward and we draw an arrow to the future; we draw both. What allows for a “both and” answer? It is both in some sense fulfilled in the Church and in some sense fulfilled in the future. This is the theology of one of the strongest opponents of Dispensationalism: George Eldon Ladd.
Ladd is the one who really faced the evangelical church with this “already not yet” theology. We understand biblical eschatology as being fulfilled in a preliminary partial way, but are still awaiting the complete consummation, complete fulfillment.
This is a different topic; I’ll come back to New Covenant. How do answer the question has the Kingdom of Christ come, or is the Kingdom of Christ here? “Yes but,” or “Yes and no.” Don’t you have to say both? Is the Kingdom of Christ here? Yes, Colossians 1:13 says, We have been transferred from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of his beloved Son. In Matthew 12, Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees said he casts out demons by Beelzebul (Matthew 12:24 ). But he says in response, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). So has the kingdom come? Yes. But what does the New Testament call Satan at various points? The god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the ruler of this world (John 12:13), and the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2). When you read Isaiah 9:6, 7, have you ever asked yourself the question, has this happened? “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on his shoulders; And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And of increase of his government there will be not end to establish it and to uphold it from this day forth and for ever more for the zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” Has this happened? Did you read the paper this morning? Something tells me we are not there yet. This was exactly John the Baptist’s problem. This is huge to get this. John the Baptist in Matthew 11 sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the appointed one or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). This is an incredible question, an unbelievable question. John the Baptist witnessed the dove descend on Jesus (John 1:32), and was told, “The One upon whom you see the dove descend, this is my son; follow him (John 1:33). John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13-16). John the Baptist was the one who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and, “I am not worthy to untie the thong on his sandal” (John 1:27). He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This is John the Baptist who now in prison says, I’m not sure if this is the anointed one. What has happened?
John knows his Old Testament. This is the problem; he knows the promises that relate to the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, guess what the Messiah is going to do? Isaiah 9:6, 7 says he is going to reign over nations. Read the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Incredible devastation to unrighteousness; he is going to destroy those who stand against him; he is going to exalt Israel. Here is the forerunner of the Messiah in prison. What is wrong with this picture? That is what John is thinking. So he thinks, maybe this isn’t the Messiah after all. Consider the angst that he must have been going through in prison, the huge spiritual struggle he must have been facing for that question to come out of him, of all people.
Jesus’ response is brilliant. “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:4, 5). Jesus is quoting Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. So the point is, John, don’t miss it; the Messiah is fulfilling prophecy; I am the Messiah. But not all prophecy, not all now, it is “already and not yet.” Is the kingdom here? Already and not yet. Yes and no, you have to say. Yes, in some things; no, in others.
Back to the New Covenant, how do we see the New Covenant fulfilled? Already in the Church; in some aspects, in a preliminary partial way, we enter into this new covenant, but even a reading of Jeremiah 31 will show that not all of it is fulfilled yet. Because it says, “I will put my Law within you and you won’t have to teach each one his neighbor, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them (Jer 31:33, 34). That hasn’t happened yet. We have teachers in the Church appointed by God to tell people about God, teach them about the Lord. We have the gift of teaching in the Church for that very purpose. So it hasn’t happened yet.
Everyone acknowledges that there has to be an “already not yet.” It includes, in my view, an already in this age predominately gentiles (who were not even given the New Covenant, it was given to Israel) who get in through the seed of Abraham: Jesus. That is our avenue. They get in as Jews, well granted through faith in Christ, they will be brought to faith in Christ, but no other ethnic national group is promised, “I am going to save you.” God promises that to Israel though; they will be saved as a whole ethnic group. Not Babylonians, not Assyrians not anybody else, but Jews will be because God chose them. It is clear in Deuteronomy 7; God chose them, and he is going to save them. When that happens, the New Covenant God made with Israel and Judah is going to be fulfilled. You watch; God will keep his word
I am the Lead Pastor of Marin Bible Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca., and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 30 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and seven grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship of resources, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.
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