It has been on the fringes of a number of discussions I’ve had in recent months. It often comes up (unseen) in discussions about baptism with Calvinistic credo baptists. It has been at work in discussions about the relationship between law and gospel, and the Old and New Covenants. “It” is New Covenant Theology (NCT).
Let’s start by realizing that this is a matter of disagreement within The Gospel Coalition. There is freedom to disagree on this issue. This is not a matter that puts one “outside the camp” but one that creates some significant differences of opinion within the camp. Often we can’t resolve those differences on non-essentials because we ultimately are disagreeing about whether we should embrace Covenant Theology (CT) or NCT (yes, some of the Gospel Coalition guys are Dispensational).
I’ve been meaning to do a post on this for months now but haven’t had the time to really process things. I probably still haven’t processed things as clearly as I want to. As a young Christian, I drank from the Dispensational cistern via Hal Lindsey (I worked at a book store at the time of conversion and didn’t know any better). I’ve since read books by Ryrie and others. I “grew” out of it. By that I mean that no one really showed me anything better or beat me up about it. No one, as Dr. Nicole would say “disabused me” of this theology. As I continued to read Scripture, I discovered it didn’t fit. Scripture itself took Dispensationalism out of the picture for me. But I was essentially left with nothing in its place when I arrived at RTS Orlando.
There I was grounded in CT, even if it took me years to embrace and/or understand all of the implications. Baptism was the tough one for me, but I got there eventually (2 years after seminary). I haven’t studied NCT itself as much, but have read many who espouse it (like D.A. Carson and other Trinity guys).
Last night someone sent me a link to the Desiring God website. It was a short article meant to briefly describe Dispensationalism, CT & NCT. The author went on to say that Piper’s own views are probably closest to NCT and farthest from Dispensational Theology. NCT agrees with CT in seeing Scripture structured by Covenants, not Dispensations. It agrees with Dispensationalism by seeing a discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. I’m not really interested in rehashing the Dispensational thing, so let’s look at the brief descriptions of CT & NCT and say a few things about each.
Covenant theology believes that God has structured his relationship with humanity by covenants rather than dispensations. For example, in Scripture we explicitly read of various covenants functioning as the major stages in redemptive history, such as the covenant with Abraham, the giving of the law, the covenant with David, and the new covenant. These post-fall covenants are not new tests of man’s faithfulness to each new stage of revelation (as are the dispensations in dispensationalism), but are rather differing administrations of the single, overarching covenant of grace.
The covenant of grace is one of two fundamental covenants in covenant theology. It structures God’s post-fall relationship to mankind; pre-fall, God structured His relationship by the covenant of works. The covenant of grace is best understood in relation to the covenant of works.
The covenant of works, instituted in the Garden of Eden, was the promise that perfect obedience would be rewarded with eternal life. Adam was created sinless but with the capability of falling into sin. Had he remained faithful in the time of temptation in the Garden (the “probationary period”), he would have been made incapable of sinning and secured in an eternal and unbreakable right standing with God.
But Adam sinned and broke the covenant, and thereby subjected himself and all his descendants to the penalty for covenant-breaking, condemnation. God in His mercy therefore instituted the “covenant of grace,” which is the promise of redemption and eternal life to those who would believe in the (coming) redeemer. The requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life is not annulled by the covenant of grace, but is rather fulfilled by Christ on behalf of His people, since now that all are sinners no one can meet the condition of perfect obedience by his own performance. The covenant of grace, then, does not set aside the covenant of works but rather fulfills it.
As mentioned above, covenant theology emphasizes that there is only one covenant of grace, and that all of the various redemptive covenants that we read of in the Scripture are simply differing administrations of this one covenant. In support, it is pointed out that a covenant is in essence simply a sovereignly given promise (usually with stipulations), and since there is only one promise of salvation (namely, by grace through faith), it follows that there is therefore only one covenant of grace. All of the specific redemptive covenants we read of (the Abrahamic, Mosaic, etc.) are various and culminating expressions of the covenant of grace.
I have no problem with that brief description as far as it goes. The mischaracterization of CT will occur when discussing NCT. But you get the gist- God, who is eternal, saves people through the Covenant of Grace, of which all the other covenants are different, progressive administrations. It reaches its fulfillment and apex in the New Covenant. What he doesn’t say here (for brevity’s sake I’m sure) is that the New Covenant fulfills the covenants made with Abraham, Moses & David. Matthew stresses in 1:1ff that Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham. His gospel lays out how Jesus fulfills these covenants: that Jesus is bringing blessing to the Gentiles, and that He is the long expected King.
What is implicit in his statements is the reality that even the Mosaic administration is ultimately a gracious administration. First came redemption from Egypt (a picture of salvation) and then comes obedience. They were not loved because they were righteous. They were loved so they’d become righteous. This was eventually corrupted into religion instead of Gospel, as we see in Paul’s conflict with the Judaizers. But enough of this for now.
New Covenant Theology
New covenant theology typically does not hold to a covenant of works or one overarching covenant of grace (although they would still argue for only one way of salvation). The essential difference between New Covenant Theology (hereafter NCT) and Covenant Theology (CT), however, concerns the Mosaic Law. CT holds that the Mosaic Law can be divided into three groups of laws–those regulating the government of Israel (civil laws), ceremonial laws, and moral laws. The ceremonial law and civil law are no longer in force because the former was fulfilled in Christ and the latter only applied to Israel’s theocracy, which is now defunct. But the moral law continues.
NCT argues that one cannot divide the law up in that way, as though part of the Mosaic Law can be abrogated while the rest remains in force. The Mosaic Law is a unity, they say, and so if part of it is canceled, all of it must be canceled. On top of this, they say that the New Testament clearly teaches that the Mosaic Law as a whole is superseded in Christ. It is, in other words, no longer our direct and immediate source of guidance. The Mosaic Law, as a law, is no longer binding on the believer.
Does this mean that believers are not bound by any divine law? No, because the Mosaic Law has been replaced by the law of Christ. NCT makes a distinction between the eternal moral law of God and the code in which God expresses that law to us. The Mosaic Law is an expression of God’s eternal moral law as a particular code which also contains positive regulations pertinent to the code’s particular temporal purpose, and therefore the cancellation of the Mosaic Law does not mean that the eternal moral law is itself canceled. Rather, upon canceling the Mosaic Law, God gave us a different expression of his eternal moral law–namely, the Law of Christ, consisting in the moral instructions of Christ’s teaching and the New Testament. The key issue that NCT seeks to raise is: Where do we look to see the expression of God’s eternal moral law today–do we look to Moses, or to Christ? NCT says we look to Christ.
There are many similarities between the Law of Christ and Mosaic Law, but that does not change the fact that the Mosaic Law has been canceled and that, therefore, we are not to look to it for direct guidance but rather to the New Testament. For example, England and the US have many similar laws (for example, murder is illegal in both countries). Nonetheless, the English are not under the laws of America, but of England. If an English citizen murders in England, he is held accountable for breaking England’s law against murder, not America’s law against murder.
The benefit of NCT, its advocates argue, is that it solves the difficulty of trying to figure out which of the Mosaic laws apply to us today. On their understanding, since the Mosaic Law is no longer a direct and immediate source of guidance, we look to the Law of Christ for our direct guidance. Although the Mosaic Law is no longer a binding law code in the NT era, it still has the authority, not of law, but of prophetic witness. As such, it fills out and explains certain concepts in both the old and new covenant law.
The first distinction he notes is that there is no Covenant of Works in NCT. Let us keep in mind that all Adam received he did not earn. There was common grace. But there was also a prohibition and a penalty for disobedience. Law & sanction to be precise. What is important, from my view point, is that Eve sinned first (1 Tim. 2) but that sin & death entered the world through Adam’s sin (Rom. 5). How did this happen? How is Adam’s sin more important than hers? How does all creation fall at his sin, or anyone’s sin? He was the head of a covenant (which was Paul’s point in Romans 5). The process by which we fell is the process by which we are saved in Christ. Faith in Christ means (in part) that He replaces Adam as our covenant representative. In other words, I think NCT (or at least many of its forms) has a serious problem on this front.
They also tend to reject the notion of a (re)new(ed) covenant. The covenants in the Old Covenant are not seen as connected and progressively revealing God’s plan (righteousness by faith => a people living by faith => an everlasting king for those people). Nor is the New Covenant necessarily a fulfillment of the older covenants, it is seen more as replacing them. Is this how we should view it?
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
What laws will God put in their minds and write on their hearts? Here is one of the problems, as I see it, a distinction between the moral law (10 commandments) and the Law of Christ or the Royal Law. Any Jew hearing this would think the 10 Commandments. And they would not be wrong. But the law is internalized. They will no longer need to sacrifice for their sins because of the Sacrifice which has removed their sins and wickedness. So this new covenant is really a renewed covenant.
In Ezekiel 37 we also see this anticipated covenant is connected to previous covenants, both Mosaic and Davidic.
24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”
God’s people are united under the Davidic king. Unlike the past, they will follow God’s laws and decrees. Once again, the original audience would not anticipate a whole new set of laws different from the moral law. God will dwell among His people; first through the indwelling Spirit and then in the New Jerusalem. Jesus is the Davidic king who unites all God’s people, not just Israelites.
Additionally, while God is one that does not mean His law is one. The 10 Commandments are set apart. They are not given by Moses (we’ll touch this again later) but by God. He writes them in stone. This might be a good clue as to its permanence. There are laws that deal specifically with worship- what makes us unclean and how people are made ceremonial clean in order to enter God’s presence. They are also about propitiation for sin, providing provisional forgiveness when done by faith until the true Lamb of God came. These sacrifices are only for those sins in Israel not punishable by death. For them there was no atonement. The penalties for Israel are governed by the civil law which interprets the various applications of the moral law for the people in theocratic Israel, and gives their proper sanctions.
His illustration is a bit off. In terms of the moral law, all nations have laws that reflect most of them. Take murder, but each applies that differently. Some consider abortion illegal and others don’t. Some consider honor killings illegal, and others don’t. They also differ in sanctions. Some have the death penalty and some don’t. Their case law is different, but the basic moral law regarding at least the laws relating to human relationships.
Back to the idea of looking to Moses. It is not, as I said, Moses’ law but God’s. It reflects God’s character, not some cultural peculiarities. Jesus is the perfect manifestation of the Law, for He kept it perfectly. To say we look to Moses instead of Christ is a false dilemma. The “law of Christ” is never really given. Some will say that it (and Royal Law/Law of Perfect Freedom) are simple to love God and love one another. But what do Paul and James do?
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
In Romans 13 Paul uses the moral law, the commandments to explain what love looks like. Love is not different from the law, but defined in part by the law. For a Christian the motive for obedience is quite different than for non-Christians. We are motivated by love for God and one another, faith, and filial fear. We are not slaves seeking to gain love, but beloved children who want to please our heavenly Father. Paul uses them as far more than “prophetic witness.”
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
In James 2, we see James explaining the royal law as found in Scripture- the Old Testament. All of it is in the moral law of the Old Testament, or Moses. He’s writing to Christians and expects them to keep this law by faith. Sounds like the Apostles didn’t get the memo about us not having to obey the moral law as found in the Old Testament. Sorry, that was snarky but you get the point. Once again, this goes beyond “prophetic witness.”
The passages which speak of the end of the law are in the context of justification. Our acceptance before God is not based on our keeping of the Law. Even as Christians. Sin does not obliterate justification. The Law no longer condemns us, though it shows us when we need to repent and change. If you are depending on your obedience to any manifestation of law for your approval before God, you are lost, not merely mistaken.
Let me also be clear. The power to obey is not found in the law, or the flesh. It is only found in the Gospel. The Spirit is at work in the regenerate to put sin to death and bring life to obedience. We see this in Romans 8:13, Galatians 5:16ff. Titus 2:11-14, and particularly in Philippians 2:12-13.
Lastly, there is 2 Timothy 3. Remember, much of the New Testament was not written. The Scripture Paul is referring to, which made Timothy wise for salvation was the Old Testament. There is more:
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The Old Testament does more than prepare us for Christ or teach us general principles about God. It is useful to rebuke you and correct you for your sin. Let that sink in. If the 10 commandments have nothing to do with us, then how can the Old Testament rebuke and correct us? How can such things equip us for every good work? These passages and more are problematic for the NCT position. These passages, particularly 2 Timothy 3, also point us to the continuity of covenant signs. The bloody signs of circumcision and Passover have been replaced (and expanded) by bloodless signs because the blood of Christ has been shed. The Old Testament should not be neglected as we seek to understand how to apply the signs. But that is a discussion for another day since this has already gone on too long.