Frequently Asked Questions About Christianity, Answered Honestly!
What is the Difference Between Covenant
Theology, and New Covenant Theology?
-by Tony Warren
n truth, there really is only one correct theological view of the Covenant, and that is the "Biblical" view. That is to say, the view of Covenant Theology as defined by the Bible. However, man typically chooses to make things more complicated and confusing than they should be, and so accordingly, labels are required to separate the three basic schools of thought. Though the specifics of the theology of the Covenant may be defined in one way by one group, and in another way by another group, in general there are basically three major views. These views fit somewhere into the systems known as "Covenant Theology," "New Covenant Theology," and "Dispensational Theology." Following is a general and brief synopsis of these three theologies.
It is difficult to summarize the dispensational belief because out of its roots have come so many outgrowths and diverse branches. In general, the core of this system is their untenable insistence on the oxymoron that they take the Bible very literally, even when it is figurative. And thus they believe that Old Covenant believers were under an epochal of Mosaic law. These theologians teach that there is a great degree of discontinuity between the old and new Covenants, and that there are diverse ways in which God has dealt with man in different dispensations or epochs of time. This system teaches God's plan for dealing with man throughout history has been changing throughout these seven periods of time.
These diverse economies include the time of the Mosaic Law, the present age we live in, and the future one thousand year reign of Christ on earth. Those who hold this theological view do not believe that there is only one people of God, but rather that the Bible contains two distinctly different paths for certain people. This includes one plan for those who are of Jewish heritage, and a separate plan for all the Gentile people. The New Covenant is viewed in the sense of law being replaced by Grace, rather than law and Grace coexisting throughout time. Although it is believed that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by Christ through faith now, they also hold that the nation of Israel will receive additional earthly promises and honors. Some even declare that the Jewish people are saved by grace of God during this present dispensation, but that the Jewish people of the past (and indeed Jewish people of the future) are somehow to be justified by lineage in a divine establishment of obedience to the law.
It is this view of God having separate plans for those who are of the heritage of the nation of Israel, and the belief in this series of divine dispensations, that distinguishes this form of theology from both "Covenant Theology," and "New Covenant Theology." Dispensationalism is beyond the scope of this particular publication, and so this paper will focus on the differences between "Covenant Theology" and "New Covenant Theology."
To better understand the theologies, we first should better understand the word. The word translated Covenant in the Hebrew is [beriyth], and in the Greek is [diatheke] (often translated Testament). They both very literally mean "a promise or solemn oath" (genesis 26:3). For example, if you produced a written agreement certifying that your land should go to your son after your death, that is a Covenant. It is literally a written Promise, oath, or testament certifying that something must be done. Moreover, any Covenant can made out as conditional, or as an unconditional Covenant. For example, a Covenant can be a mutual agreement that "IF" certain requirements are met, then only then will the promise be enforceable. That is a contract or conditional Covenant. On the other hand, an Oath or promise to give something, with no requirements or necessary stipulations, is an unconditional Covenant. i.e., it is a solemn Promise or Oath to do something, with no conditions attached. Thus, any breaking of that Covenant for any reason is a violation. In these ways, God has made many solemn promises or Covenants in scripture, which careful study reveals all point to some aspect of Christianity. e.g.:
God will never forsake His people Israel, and this promise is equated to His oath of having the time keepers working in the heavens. In other words, this is God's promise or "oath" that there will be day and night "Till He come." And if this promise or Covenant cannot be broken, then neither will His promise never to forsake Jacob. It is an unconditional Covenant to the sons of God, the children of Israel.
- "Thus saith the LORD; If my covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth, then will I cast away the seed of Jacob..."
Again, this Covenant is a solemn oath or promise that was made by God, that He would not destroy all flesh by those flood waters anymore. These are all God's unconditional Covenants or Promises. But in like manner, a Covenant of God may also be conditional, where it is predicated upon some action of man.
- "And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh."
In other words, the promise (Covenant) is conditioned upon if they would obey. Only then would they sit upon thrones in the Kingdom. When we see a conditional Covenant in scripture, it is often called a "covenant of works." This simply means that the Promise is dependant or conditioned upon some action (work) of man. By the same token, a unconditional covenant is known as a "Covenant of Grace," meaning it is not a Promise that is conditioned by any works of man. It is a Covenant received freely, strictly by the unmerited favor of God. All Promises or Covenants of God throughout scripture, fall into one of these two categories.
- "If thy children will keep my Covenant and my testimony that I shall teach them, their children shall also sit upon thy throne for evermore."
Again, we see that the Covenant and the promise are synonymous. When God made a Covenant with Abraham that his seed (Christ) would inherit the kingdom, that was "The Promise," which was unconditional. And it is a promise that we also have part in, if we have part in Christ Jesus.
- "And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make The Promise of none effect."
To Biblically define the word Covenant, we need not look to man's explanations, but to the scriptures as our dictionary. And doing this, we can see that the word most nearly means a promise or oath. There are many theologians who define a Covenant as an agreement, but while a Covenant can be an agreement (mutual promise), it is not always. It can be a singular promise from God (or man) to do, or to not do something. Just as a last will and Testament is a singular promise of possession after someone dies. estament in the Greek is the exact same word Covenant. It is a solemn oath made by that person. Which, not coincidentally, God Himself uses to define the Promise of inheritance (Hebrews 9:16-17) which He has secured for His people. The Covenant!
- "And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to The Promise."
Which brings us to this word as it is used in the context of the issue before us. Covenant Theology (for example, as understood in the Westminster Confession of Faith) is the understanding that the promise supports a great degree of continuity between the Old Covenant (represented by works) and the New Covenant (representing grace). The Old Covenant is actually a synonym for the law, and the New Covenant a synonym for Grace. There were no saints ever saved by the Old Covenant law, as all who were saved before the time of Christ, were saved under the only Covenant that can save. And thart is the New Covenant that was confirmed in the shed blood of Christ. From the very beginning, all of mankind that were elect, were saved the exact same way. By faith in the redemptive work of Christ, the Old Covenant of works (conditional) was passed away (Hebrews 8:12-13) for us (both Old and New Covenant saints), that we are no longer under its sentence of death. The Old was the example, which the New brought to light and consummated.
For what cause? Well, the reason the examples of the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkled upon the unclean pointed to the shed blood of Christ. The Old system was merely a shadow foretelling the true blood, which truly would purify the flesh. By means of the death of Christ, we receive the ratification of Old Covenant of law by the propitiation of our sins or transgressions, by which that Old conditional Covenant condemned us. The Promise or 'Covenant of redemption' (Ephesians 1:4-7,11; 1st Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8) is what undergirds the Covenant of grace in Covenant Theology.
- "And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance."
Moreover, in Covenant Theology we see scripture as also illustrating that the promise or Covenant of God is also external in nature. Where, just as the nation Israel was externally under God's protection, the Church is a family under this same external Covenant. The external nature of the Covenant applies not only to those adults who come to believe, but also in a non-salvific way (1st Corinthians 7:14), to their children. In like manner, water baptism is an external outward 'sign' of incorporation into the Covenant family of God. But it doesn't guarantee anyone's salvation.
The biblical hermeneutic of the law establishes that whatever is not abolished in Christ, continues. Therefore, there is a certain unity or continuity in God's Covenants. i.e., though there is the Covenant of works and the Covenant of grace, they are intimately related for the true believer. In other words, Christ fulfilled the conditions of the Old Covenant of law or works, that it may no longer rule over us. Once truly saved, we are looked upon by God as clean, holy and unblamable. That is how the Old Covenant is passed away for us, as we have become as dead to the law (Romans 7:4)through the death of the body of Christ.
The Old Covenant neither brought, nor brings justification to anyone. Justification and salvation could be obtained only in the way of faith. So Abraham and all Old Covenant saints were justified by faith, and the Old Covenant was merely to illustrate that law. Covenant Theology looks upon all history as a progressive revealing of the Covenant of Grace, and that includes the Old Covenant. It carries over the old order into the new in the sense that it is understood that the Old Covenant laws are not done away with (made null and void), rather they are fulfilled or completed (for the believer only) in Christ. In this way, the old conditional promise has become new and unconditional. The true Israel of God has always been the select congregation (i.e., individuals rather than a nation), and the Old Covenant saints have always been upheld by the work of Christ, rather than their own works. Not one Old Covenant Israelite was saved by works, except it was by the work of Christ in him. The scriptures also teach that the Old Covenant laws are still binding, but we can only fully keep them in Christ Jesus. In Him alone we keep them perfectly. In other words, He is our Sabbath of rest that we will keep forever, and He is our daily or continual sacrifice. Our Lamb of atonement. Jesus taught that what He came to do in His life, and the work that He accomplished, was the fulfillment and the true substance of all the Old Covenant 'shadows or types' that merely prefigured it. Those laws are all still kept in Him. Just as no one in the Old Covenant was ever saved by the blood of literal animals being slaughtered (Hebrews 10:4), likewise no one ever refrained from sin and lived righteously in a way that could save him. They were only righteous by the work of Christ, through the faith. And they only kept the law perfectly in Him. They were saved retroactively, by faith looking forward to Christ through these shadows and types. The Old Covenant laws were everlasting (Numbers 18:19; Joshua 4:7; Leviticus 16:31), because they were merely a picture of the New (or true) saving Covenant that was coming. Just as a shadow cast on the ground would prefigure or announce that someone was coming. In this we see the continuity of the Old Covenants, which were shadows of things to come.
- "Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.
- Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,"
A shadow is obscure, not well defined, not showing the whole picture of what it represents. God set those Old Covenant laws to look forward to Christ in whom we could keep them perfectly (as required). Thus Covenant theology embodies the belief that the law is not destroyed or abrogated, but passed away only in that it is fulfilled in Christ. In this way only are we dead to the law that it cannot 'condemn' us. Not that we are exempt from abiding by the law.
- "For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:
- Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount."
When our Lord established the New Covenant, it was proof that there is nothing of merit in the dispensational system view of the Covenant. For Christ Himself was not establishing something radically different, rather, 'by Himself,' He was establishing the true or real fulfillment
of the Old Covenant shadows.
hese were not the "true image," but merely a shadow of the things that were coming. The law was our schoolteacher (Galatians 3:24), showing us that we fall well short of the glory of God, and that we couldn't get to heaven by our own works. The Old Testament saints couldn't keep the law by their blood sacrifices, nor did these acts that were commanded by God make them perfect (keeping perfectly God's laws). The real work of keeping the law falls upon Christ's shoulders. And so in the system of Covenant Theology, it is understood that the law is not ended, and that we are still obligated observe it. But it is made fulfilled in Christ, that it cannot condemn us. The wages of any sin is death, and we can only keep the law perfectly (which is required) in the death of Christ Jesus. We obey God and keep the law only because God is now working within us to both will and to do the good works.
- "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect."
The keeping the law is by the work of Christ, and the good that we see worked out in ourselves is the evidence of salvation, not the reason (lest any man should boast) for it. Keeping the law is a product of Christ working within us. Moreover, God has an external federal family relationship with us, His visible Church. The same external Covenant family relationship God had with the Old Testament saints. These truths of a 'certain' continuity of Old and New Covenants constitute the true essence of sound, justifiable, Biblical 'Covenant Theology.'
- "Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."
New Covenant Theology
By contrast, 'New Covenant Theology' is a phrase that people use to identify the belief that the administration in the New Testament has a distinctively 'new character' to it. It has been un-flatteringly equated to being a compromise between Dispensational Theology and Covenant Theology. this is partly due to it being a doctrine held by many theologians who were former dispensationalists, Reformed Baptists or former Baptists who come from this background.
In this teaching, it is generally held that Christ has actually Changed God's laws. Their belief stems from their conclusion that because we live under the provisions of the New Covenant believed to be a New Dispensation inaugurated by Christ, that the law of Christ is 'not' the same as the law of Moses. However, it is my belief that this view is indefensible on may different fronts. Primarily because Christ did nothing but support the law of Moses all throughout His ministry. Indeed, it is quite evident that 'the law of Moses' is synonymous with 'The word of God.' In other words, the ten commandments and all other commandments of God, were not Moses' law, it was God's law. It is called the law of Moses to distinguish it from Grace.
In other words, the law given Moses by God could not make men perfect, and it is contrasted with the system of grace that came only through Christ Jesus. All of God's word is a perfect word, and though it may appear Christ contradicts the law, careful consideration reveals that He does not. For example, when our Lord says that he that is angry with his brother without a cause (Matthew 5:21-22) is guilty of murder. He is not contradicting the law of murder, rather He is explaining that in God's economy, the sin of murder goes well beyond the literal or physical taking of a human
life. This is not a 'new' law, this was always the case. So Christ is in no wise is abrogating the old law, but illuminating it to show that without Christ, we could never keep the laws far reaching implications. Thus the only way to keep it, is in Christ.
- "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."
So contrary to New Covenant Theology, Christ confirmed the law of moses was indeed the law of Christ. Not one word or letter of it is invalid, because it's God's law. Not one tiny little detail will pass away from it. It all has to be kept, and that is why Christ had to come came to fulfill the promise of salvation in righteousness. For there was no one else who could. He didn't come to change the law or to make it null and void. The law of Moses for murder is still the law of God, and thus murder is still a sin. Idolatry is still a sin. Adultery is still a sin. the law has not changed for man. Likewise the Passover was commanded to be kept 'forever,' and it will be kept forever. Not in slaughtering physical lambs, but it is "continued" in Christ by the communion service. In this feast we indeed eat the Passover Lamb and keep the law of this sacrifice forever. It illustrates salvation was "never" through the sacrifice of animals, it was always by the shed blood of Christ. The law of animal sacrifice merely prefigured His coming.
- "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
- For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."
New Covenant theologians may look at the fact that we no longer celebrate the Passover in the style they did in the Old Covenant as proof that the law has changed. But in truth, what it proves is that the Passover celebration is kept in our festival of eating of Christ. He is the real passover Lamb, and not a animal that is burned in the flame. Why would the children of God eat of the shadow when they have the real which the shadow merely forecast? Christians keep the Passover eternally, in the real.
Truly Christ is declaring that whosoever partakes in eating of the sacrifice Lamb, is eternally keeping the law of God concerning this. It is not a New Covenant in the sense that Old Covenant saints were not saved this way, or had no access to Christ this exact same way. It is New only in the sense that it is the perfect administration of the Covenant of Grace, that the Mosaic law forecast would save. It is new in the sense of superior, since it is the only way into the Kingdom.
- "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
- For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed."
While the New Covenant Theology system declares the New Testament characterizes the New Covenant as superior to the old, it also places a disconnect between the two. Therefore it is surmised that
this perceived discontinuity means the law of Christ stands in contrast to the law of Moses. However, that would make two separate and distinct bodies, which is an un-biblical concept concerning the children of God. The Old Testament saints were saved by Grace exactly as the New Testament saints were. Not by works, but by the Covenant of Grace. In the Old Covenant times, by faith they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah Christ and his finished work on the cross. In the New Covenant, by faith we look backward at the coming of Christ and His finished work on the cross. The faith is the same and the Grace is the same. The only difference is the saint's directional of their view of Christ. In other words, We (Old
Testament as well as New Testament saints) are all part of this very same continual eternal covenant of Grace. Just because before the cross of Christ, the Covenant was not yet given strength, doesn't mean that it's efficacy does not reach back to Abraham or Abel. And if it does, then there is obviously continuity.
If there indeed was no continuation of the Covenants with Israel, it is contradictory for God to declare He grafts New Covenant branches into the Old Covenant Olive Tree, Israel. The Olive tree (Romans 11) is the representation or symbol of this external Covenant that God has with Israel. And it clearly existed both before the cross and after the cross. This Covenant with Israel stood strong even as some branches were broken off of it as blindness in part.
We gentiles grafted into the Covenant tree of Israel "among those" who were not broken off. Clearly, it's not a different tree, it's the same Covenant Israel Tree. Thus the Covenant is new only in that Christ has come, being the real substance and the real Root of it, and He has fulfilled the shadow. He has given the Covenant with Israel it's real STRENGTH, and this is what 'New Covenant Theology' fails to address effectively. The truths of continuity, which are so effectively stated in Hebrews:
- "And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;"
The Covenant/Testament was there. But it was of no force while Christ lived because He had to fulfill its promise of death and regeneration. When Christ shed His blood on the cross, He put the real strength to the Promise or Covenant with Israel. Again, it's not a different Covenant, it's a Covenant made New by being fulfilled in strength. Remember, Daniel prophesied that a Messiah was to come who would strengthen [gabar]the Covenant with many. He was to come and confirm or ratify what was already a Promise, that it would be fulfilled. It is thus superior to the old in that the Old was a Promise without strength (Hebrews 9:17) without the death of Christ. The works required in the Old Covenant are fulfilled in Christ. Thus the Covenant of works is completed or accomplished, and the Covenant of Grace established. As Christ Himself said, He came not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. The law is now written on our hearts, because Christ has gone to the cross to establish this new both for us, and retroactively for those who came before us. He dwells within us, therefore is the law always in our thoughts and heart.
- "For a Covenant is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the Covenantor liveth."
The Old Promise was to keep God's law, or be condemned, the New Promise is not that the old is tossed out the window (condemnation of sinners obviously stands), but that in Christ, we keep the Old Covenant of works perfectly. New Covenant Theology cannot effectively address how those of both the Old and New Covenant who were unsaved will have to answer to every jot and tittle of the Old Covenant law (thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, etc.) if it is supposedly done away with. But to those in Christ, they are established in better Promises (Grace) where there is no condemnation of the law.
- "This is the Covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;"
many New Covenant Theologians are fond of claiming that the Old Covenant law of Moses is somehow not in effect for Christians today, while at the same time using the Old Covenant laws of moses (thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, covet, etc.) as laws still in effect for Christians today. As they see it, if it's repeated in the New Covenant, then it's still in effect. But the question is, how then is the Old Covenant law still in effect and repeated in the New Covenant, if it was done away with? That's not a law being done away with, that is the law being reiterated! It is inconsistent at best, and presents a very shaky foundation on which to build a theology.
The New Covenant Theology system supposes that it is a totally different Covenant, when in fact it is different and new only in that the continuity of it is seen fulfilled in a new and glorious way. That is, we who are under that Covenant law may not are not condemned. It's not new in the sense that the law is abrogated. It's new in that it doesn't condemn us because of our imperfect works, or our lack of perfect labor. However, it still condemns those not in Christ, which in itself is proof that nothing has changed concerning the Old Covenant laws. Those who know the law, and who don't keep the law, will be judged more severely. Thus the words of the law stands.
Clearly, and without ambiguity, the law of Moses stands. It is not done away with for the reprobate. The only people who are not condemned by it are those in Christ. So while New Covenant Theologians believe that Christ gives the Church "new" and "higher standards of conduct" than Moses gave under a Covenant of law, it is self evident that the law of Christ, in fact 'is' the law of Moses. The law under which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob toiled is the same law under which we toil. And as they were saved not by fulfilling the Covenant of works, but Christ fulfilling it for them, so we have that very same Grace. While many proponents of New Covenant Theology argue that there is no 'Covenant of Grace,' this is the most accurate title to represent the one single plan of redemption, which God has instituted for the saints from the very beginning. Even as Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, and He and his alone were saved, and made heirs of the Promise. In a phrase, a Covenant of Grace.
- "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
- But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
- For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
- For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law."
In conclusion, it is my belief that Dispensational Theology is not only untenable, but disjointed and fundamentally flawed. And New Covenant Theology is in parts inconsistent and places an artificial abrogation of Old Covenant law. But Covenant Theology is the Biblically consistent view of how God has always dealt with His people. Indeed, Biblical Theology is 'Covenant Theology,' one continuity between the Old Covenant and the New. The Covenant of works and the Covenant of Grace, both in agreement and continuity. One in which we uphold our obligations to the conditional promises of God in the Grace of Christ Jesus only, because He has finished the works 'required' as our substitute.
The difference between the two Christian theologies of "Covenant Theology" and "New Covenant Theology," basically boils down to the distinction that Covenant Theology believes in the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, and New Covenant Theology believes that the New Covenant law of Christ stands 'in contrast' to the Old Covenant law of Moses. There are many flavors of these Theologies, but generally speaking, this is the basic difference.
Copyright 2000 Tony Warren
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