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Posts Tagged ‘covenant of grace’


One of my congregants was born in another country, and another branch of the family of faith. When they moved to America and joined our congregation there was much that was new to her. One thing in particular was Covenant Theology.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God's Unfolding Promises to His PeopleShe and her husband were listening to Ligon Duncan’s lectures on the subject but was wondering if there was a book I could recommend. Months earlier I had picked up Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People on sale. It came highly recommended by others. I hadn’t read it yet but lent them my copy. It turned out to be one of her favorite books of the year. As a result, I read it (at the time we were thinking of writing a middle school curriculum on Covenant Theology).

The book is appropriately named. To be fair I’ve read many of the key books on the subject, but Rhodes does keep it simple. He doesn’t duck controversies, but neither does he get bogged down in them. He doesn’t use technical language because this is intended to be for the average person in the pews. He succeeds, as indicated by the many recommendations I’ve seen online. The book includes a number of helpful diagrams (not charts!) to illustrate his point in a given chapter. These visual aids supplement the text nicely.

Covenants are often misunderstood. They are about relationships. One of the more famous definitions is O. Palmer Robertson’s “bond in blood”. The problem with that is it doesn’t work for the first covenant in Scripture. Nor the eternal covenant between the Father and Son if you hold to that (I do). Jonty Rhodes seeks to get at covenants through a series of questions (good questions) that bring us to the ultimate questions of how can I know God’s promises are reliable.

He begins in the Garden with what is commonly called The Covenant of Works. But he begins that chapter in the Upper Room and Jesus’ mention of the blood of the covenant. We can’t really understand Jesus’ death if we don’t understand covenants. Covenants are throughout Scripture, and Rhodes rightly notes “Covenant is the theme that links the different books of the Bible to make them one united story.” But, you might say, the Bible is about Jesus. Yes, and He reveals what He’s going to do through those covenants.

The word occurs more than 300 times. While it is connected to the word “to cut” we see from its use and context that “a covenant is a conditional promise.” Or to flesh it out some more, he says “A covenant is an agreement between God and human beings, where God promises blessings if the conditions are kept and threatens curses if the conditions are broken.” This doesn’t mean there aren’t covenants between nations or individuals (David and Jonathan made a covenant of friendship) but our focus is on the biggies that shape the Scripture.

Now Rhodes goes back to the Garden. God has created, separated and filled creation. He made Adam and Eve in His image to fill, subdue and rule it. These creation mandates involve marriage & family, work and study, arts and sciences. In addition to these positive commands about how they are to spend their time, we see the provision of food to sustain them. There was one negative command, that one tree whose fruit they couldn’t eat. Keep the commands and this Garden temple will grow to fill the earth to God’s glory, but break them and they ruin everything. The Bible never mentions that this comprises a covenant but we see commands, prohibitions and sanctions anyway (as well as the historical prologue of creation). We also see, Rhodes notes, the reality of Adam as a covenant or federal head in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. How can we properly understand how all humanity fell in Adam apart from a covenant? If we rule that out, we rule out the means of salvation with Jesus as the head of the new covenant.

As Rhodes notes, plenty of people don’t like the term covenant of works. Other terms used are covenant of life or covenant of creation. There doesn’t seem to be any grace in works. Adam did receive all kinds of benefits in creation without initially earning them. Continuing in them was a different story. But this intramural debate doesn’t interest him much.

The greatness of the Garden didn’t last long. Adam ruined it for himself, and all of us. His actions have affected every single human being who has lived, is living and will live. He is literally the most (or 2nd most) influential person ever. The second chapter engages us in Satan’s assault on God through His image, Adam. When he sins, the curse breaks out. God is applying the sanctions of the covenant, not having a conniption of divine proportions. The curses affect the creation mandates: our filling, subduing and ruling. Each is not attended with futility and failure, pain and problems.

Yet we see mercy as well. God did not simply execute these traitors, he let the live. But He also have them a promise that someone would come to set things right again. Rhodes also gets to the more “theological” aspects of the curse that need to be dealt with: guilt, grime (internal corruption) and the grave.

His third chapter brings us back to the reality of covenant conflict, or rather the conflict in the OT seen through the lens of the covenant. Satan continues his war on God’s people in an attempt to thwart the seed of the woman. The conflict is frequently one of words, with the false messages of the Evil One continuing. Here he address the covenant with Noah. He slips in a little about common grace since this covenant is not specifically about salvation but provides the stage for redemption. It also mirrors the creation mandates and promises. Like Adam, this “second” Adam sins and fails to bring comfort to God’s people.

This brings Rhodes, and us, to the covenant with Abraham (his new name by virtue of the covenant). The seed of the woman will come through Abraham’s line. God promises a great name (unlike Babel which sought to make a great name for itself), great people and to bring a great blessing to the nations. God will repair the damage done by Adam, but through Abraham’s promised seed. The covenants progressively reveal God’s promises to His people. They are rightly seen as building upon one another rather than disconnected from one another.

The Mosaic covenant is one that continues to perplex people today. Is it reflective of the covenant of grace, the covenant of works or does it have elements of both?

It arises because God has been keeping His promises to Abraham about a great nation, and is about to fulfill His promise about the land. Their redemption from slavery helps form a gracious background to this covenant. Yet, like the covenant of creation it seems very much about how to remain in the land, or be removed from the land for prolonged & persistent disobedience. We should see the sacrifices as provisional until the Seed comes. This covenant doesn’t lay aside the promise, and like Abraham they were accounted righteous by faith. Like Abraham they were also to walk uprightly before Him (Gen. 17). To think that conditions, or holiness, reflect back upon the covenant of worship seems to be mistaken. Rhodes puts it this way, the covenants with Abraham and Moses are the same girl in a different dress. To put it another way: while obedience doesn’t produce salvation, salvation produces obedience.

The next development is the covenant with David. God narrows down the line for the seed further. The skull crusher will come from David. We see here, as well, God’s conditionality. If a particular son disobeys, he will be disciplined. But there is the son who will set all things right. Just as David disobeyed at times, Solomon gets distracted by girls, gods and gold. David’s line is more failure than faithfulness until the Babylonian exile.

In the chapter of the New Covenant, Rhodes addresses the newness of the covenant. He also draws out the consistency of the New Covenant with the previous ones. It has the same promises, not different promises. He also develops and already-not yet approach to this covenant. We see forgiveness as well as holiness. We see the promise of a new heart and the Spirit. We see the familiar promise that “they will by My people and I will be their God.” Like the earlier covenants, they are all about salvation, not simply forming a nation with land. Those served the purposes of redemption and the boundaries are about to be expanded. The Gentiles doesn’t replace the Jews, but are grafted onto the vine (or more properly, Vine). We are admitted into the true Israel.

It is here that he finally addresses the question of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. This is alluded to in many Scriptures, particularly in John’s Gospel. The Father makes a conditional promise to the Son: He will give Him a people for His pain. Jesus fulfills the covenant of works for their salvation. It will not be wasted work based on the promise of people given to Him. This brings us to the doctrine of election. It also brings us to double imputation and union with Christ. The covenants are not an isolated doctrine but inform a number of doctrines.

He further explores these in covenant salvation which explores the role of each member of the Trinity in salvation, previously agreed upon. The Father chooses, the Son dies & intercedes, and the Spirit applies that salvation to the people chosen by the Father at the appointed time. This brings us to the doctrine of limited or particular atonement. It is best understood with the framework of the covenant. He brings this forward to the question of assurances. Aside from this covenantal understanding of salvation we lose the grounds of assurance.

Rhodes then explores the covenant people further with a view toward church government. He provides an interesting approach. Congregationalism is like a bunch of self-governing circles, lots of churches but seemingly no Church. The Presbyterian form of government sees a chain, self-governing congregations that are joined to for a Church. The Episcopal form is a pyramid with all under the authority of one head on earth who mediates that power through bishops to pastors and congregations. From here he moves into the visible and invisible churches and then into the question of infant baptism. The covenant is essential for understanding the church and sacraments properly.

The last chapter returns to covenant life, how the covenant informs our experience of life in the Church and the church. We receive the promised Holy Spirit (promised explicitly in the New Covenant but discussed by Paul in terms of the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians) who produces obedience in us. This is because the Spirit unites us to Jesus. He briefly touches upon the law and gospel distinction.

We discover that this book about covenants brings us to consider much of theology. They are not isolated but form the structure of Scripture and therefore theology. This is a book well-worth studying. It is worthy of recommendation to your people. It may not dig as deep into some controversies as someone may like, we see the breadth of issues that may interest people. This is not a plunge into the deep end but like wading into the pool while inviting people to swim in the deep end when they choose.

 

 

 

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I call it “a hundred page headache.”

Since my library does not have enough books on the Trinity I was drawn to Eternal Covenant by its subtitle: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology. Perhaps it should have been entitled how one idea of Meredith Kline’s reshaped some people’s covenant theology. This was tough reading, for me.

I had been wanting to read up on the Federal Vision. I didn’t know I’d bought a book connected to the Federal Vision. The connections to Cannon Press and Peter Leithart were clear. He also offers James Jordan, whom one of my professors called a “hug-able theonomist”, a debt.

The book really centers on the so-called Covenant of Works and in what way the Covenant of Grace is eternal. There is an issue about the nature of that covenant. Reformed theologians have been all over the map on this issue, as Ralph Smith lays out for people at the beginning of the book. He uses this, in part, to illustrate that the Westminster Confession of Faith could use some revision in this matter.

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In his book Children at the Lord’s Table?, Cornelius Venema includes an appendix on the issue of baptism. This appendix, he notes, is his chapter in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism edited by Gregg Strawbridge. This is an interesting irony since Gregg is one of the people mentioned who advocates for infant communion in the PCA.

“The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.” B.B. Warfield

Venema rightly goes after the presuppositions that operate in this discussion. The case is not won on the basis of proof-texts because each side brings different presuppositions regarding the nature of the covenant of grace in its varying administrations. This appendix is here because Venema also sees this problem as the basis for the infant communion debate. He uses the appendix to spend more time explaining the proper relationship between the various administrations of the covenant of grace.

Venema admits both sides have arguments from silence. Just as there is no statement explicitly keeping children in the covenant community (no command to baptize them), there is no statement explicitly removing them from the covenant community. If there was, the would have been a serious battle in the church shortly after Pentecost.  We don’t see this. Rather, we do see, from the beginning, the repetition of the phrase “this promise is for you and your children”. Peter continues to expand it to the Gentiles. Peter is speaking the language of Genesis 12, 15 & 17 in the context of the sign of initiation into the covenant community (just like Genesis 17). But, I get ahead of myself.

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IMarrow of Modern Divinity  -     By: Edward Fisher
recently wrote a post on Gospel Pardon as part of my interaction with Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity.  That book is about the errors of both legalism and antinomianism.  In that post I mentioned Andrew Farley’s The Naked Gospel which I had read and reviewed earlier this year ( Part 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 with increasing frustration).  He has what I consider to be extreme views based on a hyper-dispensationalistic hermeneutic.  We engaged in an on-line discussion where it became increasingly clear to me that we were talking past each other as a result of our very different approaches to interpreting Scripture.

While I thought I was ending communication he left one last ginormous comment.  So, I’ll use that comment to have one last installment of our discussion.  If you have questions about the relationship of the OT and NT, law and gospel, and what really is the rule of life for Christians you may find some interesting points made here.  Then again ….

Thanks for this! It’s been fun to dialogue. The ideas you are presenting are familiar to me, but it has been good practice for me to think about which Scriptures to share. In this post, I will clarify that:

1. the New Covenant was put into effect at Jesus’ death (Hebrews 9:16-17)

This is not at issue at all.  What is at issue is the relationship between the Old Covenant and New Covenant.  Both the Old and New Covenants were manifestations of the Covenant of Grace (Live & Do This).  As we will note later, some treated the Old Covenant as if it was the Covenant of Works (Do this & live).  As John Piper notes, “The flesh turns the law into a ladder.”  As people born in Adam (Romans 5), we are under the covenant of works.  As a result the Law works death in us since we are sinners.  But even the Mosaic covenant was given to redeemed people.  It was not given for them to earn life, but to manifest life.  All who believe in the promises of God (keeping in mind the progressive nature of revelation, we know more than Abraham) are under the Covenant of Grace.  This why Hebrews 4:2 says they (the wilderness generation) had the gospel preached to them.  The gospel is not only in the New Covenant.  In fact, Paul often uses OT figures to explain the truth of the gospel.  For instance, Paul quotes Ps. 32 about the bliss of forgiveness/justification in Romans 4.  You’ll note it is not tied to the sacrificial system but his confession of sin as the instrumental means (this after David had been a believer for years- gospel pardon!)

The Old and New Covenants are not identical though.  There was real progress, and the issue in Hebrews was a temptation to leave the newer, better covenant for the Old Covenant, which at that point in the history of redemption (and now) amounts to apostasy.

2. Jesus was born under Law (Galatians 4:4) and his audience was too (Galatians 4:4) and Jesus expanded on the Law (Matthew 5:21-48).

Yes, Jesus redeems all those under the Law as a Covenant of Works.  He does this in 2 ways.  First, he perfectly fulfilled the law as our Substitute.  Second, he suffered the curse of the law as our Substitute (Galatians 3).

3. The Lord’s Prayer teaches a conditional forgiveness (“as we forgive others”) while in contrast Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32 teach the opposite (unconditional forgiveness) after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I’m not so sure it teaches conditional forgiveness.  But if it did … think about who is teaching this.  Am I to disregard anything the Eternal Son of God in flesh teaches?  In your hermaneutic, yes.  In a biblical one?  No.  We find no basis for this, unless we do violence to 2 Timothy 3 as you have done by neglecting ALL that Paul says the law is useful for.

In fact, the Great Commission (given AFTER his death & resurrection!!) includes the instruction to “teach them to obey EVERYTHING I have commanded you.”  That would seem to include how to pray from earlier in that same gospel.

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I’ve finally begun to read The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.  It is the newer edition with Thomas Boston‘s notes.  So, you get 2 Puritans for the price of 1.  Hard to hate.

I am finding it a tough go at times.  Perhaps I’ve been slack in my reading of the Puritans lately.  Perhaps it is the layout.  The longer notes by Boston are laid out together, but cover a few different pages.  Since I don’t want to continually flip back and forth I sometimes lose the context.

The books starts with a few historical questions.  It briefly recounts the Marrow Controversy in the Church of Scotland and Thomas Boston’s involvement in that Controversy.  It also examines the identity of E.F. and which Edward Fisher probably wrote this important book that discusses the Christian’s relationship with the law.

The book is like Cur Deus Homo? in that it is in the form of a dialogue.  But instead of 2 characters, there are 4 to represent 2 erroneous views (legalism and antinomianism), the proper view and the new Christian who is caught in the crossfire.

One of the interesting aspects for me is that occasionally Boston disagrees with Fisher on finer points.  There are quite a few finer points I disagree with one or both on due to how they are using Scripture in particular instances.  These are non-essential to the arguments, however.  Boston does not require that Fisher agree with him on everything to recommend him as beneficial.  Sinclair Ferguson (his Pastoral Lessons on the Controversy are excellent!)and Philip Ryken also recommend the book (as well as a few other prominent Puritans like Burroughs) which goes to the point that a recommendation does not entail approval of every jot and tittle.  They agree with the main point, not every rabbit trail.

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Still working through the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here are the sections on the Covenant and Christ our Mediator.

Chapter VII: Of God’s Covenant with Man

80. What is a covenant (in terms of God’s relationship with man)?  It is a bond sealed in blood by which God has redeemed His people, and outlines how we are to live as His people.

81. What is meant by the “covenant of works” (or, “of life”)? Does it have a present validity?  It was the covenant under which Adam lived in the Garden.  It is the covenant under which we all fell into sin with him.  All who are in Adam remain in the covenant of works and shall experience the just condemnation due them.

82. What is meant by the “covenant of grace”?  It is covenant in which Jesus is offered as our Redeemer who perfectly obeyed in our place  that we might receive covenant blessings, and died in our place suffering the penalty for our sins committed under the covenant of works.

83. Explain the statement that there is one unified covenant of grace with various administrations. Distinguish from dispensations. The revelation of that covenant was progressive and expansive.  Each successive covenant provided greater clarity and blessing rather than replace previous covenants.  In dispensationalism, each successive dispensation replaces the previous dispensation.

84. What are the signs and seals of the covenant? Circumcision and Passover in the OT; Baptism & the Lord’s Table in the NT

85. Are you personally committed to covenant theology? Yes.

 

Chapter VIII: Of Christ the Mediator

86. Why is the office of Christ as Mediator necessary for the salvation of God’s elect?  Apart from the work of a Mediator, we perish in our sins.  God is just and he can’t just wipe the slate clean.  Someone must be punished for our sins, and we need real obedience to receive covenant blessings.

87. Could God have pardoned sin without Christ’s sacrifice?  No, for no mere man is able to perfectly obey God but sin each day in thought, word and deed.  God is just and must punish sin.  No other substitute was available.

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Justin Taylor (Between Two Worlds) interviewed Dr. Tom Schreiner about baptism as his new book on the subject is about to be released.  As a former Reformed Credo-Baptist turned paedobaptist, I certainly disagree with Dr. Schreiner on a few of the finer details of this discussion (note- this is not a conversation 🙂 ).

But I take some exception with what he says here: 

You argue that Reformed evangelicals who baptize their babies are inconsistent–how so?

“We love fellow believers from Reformed churches with whom we share so many precious truths, especially in terms of the doctrines of grace. The Reformed are inconsistent, however, in that they require adults who are baptized to be believers, while they baptize infants who are unbelievers. Steve Wellum and Shawn Wright demonstrate that to do this they have to redefine what they previously said about the doctrine of baptism and use the theological (but, in the way they use it to support infant baptism, biblically unjustifiable) construct of the “covenant of grace” as proof of their position. “

If we are inconsistent in this matter, so is Genesis 17 & Romans 4.  Both texts refer to the application of circumcision.  In the case of Abraham is pointed to the faith he possessed.  In the case of his children it pointed to the faith they were to possess.  Converting male Gentiles prior to Jesus and the New Covenant were to be circucumcised, as were their infants in keeping with the covenant (as it is referred to in Genesis 17).

I suppose I would ask, what is the eternal covenant in Hebrews 13:20 referring to?  I don’t think we’ve invented anything.  Nor do I think we are any more ‘inconsistent’ than the Scriptures on this issue.  I’m disappointed in how Dr. Schreiner chose to express this.  No, I won’t be burning any of his books.  I just disagree with his assessment of me and my brothers on this matter. 

Where we disagree is on what we believe God has said about those who are to be baptized.  He ties it to faith.  We tie it to the covenant.  In the Old Covenant the sign was circumcision.  In the New Testament the sign is baptism.  We say the application of the sign is the same (though now woman are to be baptized now).  We are consistent with our understanding of the Scriptures.  I suppose he is consistent with his understanding of the Scriptures.  But it seems quite unfair to accuse us of inconsistency when the problem is we are inconsistent with HIS theology & practice, not in our theology & practice.  Does that make sense? 

 He’s comparing one theology to another with the assumption that his is correct and the standard by which others are measured (judging us by his theology, not Scripture).  The issue ought to be: whose theology & practice most closely resembles the Word.  He doesn’t seem to be doing this in his claims concerning those he loves.

In speaking of Colossians he says: “Further, the NT does not draw a connection between physical circumcision and baptism, but spiritual circumcision and baptism (Col. 2:11-12). There is not complete continuity between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant.”

Isn’t physical circumcision a picture of spiritual circumcision?  What the physical circumcision pointed to (the cutting of the heart) physical baptism now points to.  So this argument would appear to fall apart in my estimation.

Reformed people do not say there is complete continuity between the covenants.  We agree with him that there are areas of discontinuity.  But he establishes a strawman to win his argument, which frankly seems quite unfair.  You must argue against a position that is actually held, not a mythological position held by no one. 

This does not prove that Dr. Schreiner is wrong in his theology- only that he has not argued his position well or fairly.  I don’t want to be ‘guilty’ of the same lapse in logic/argumentation.

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