The Fundamentals of New Covenant Theology
Part 11: NCT Described (V)
“NCT also challenges the two redemptive purposes of DT, one for the Church and one for Israel, and it challenges some of DT’s presuppositions and literal hermeneutic for understanding key elements of Bible prophecy.” (Long, New Covenant Theology, NCT Described)
This blog post will focus upon Dispensational Theology’s fundamental insistence on the existence of two redemptive purposes – one for the Church and one for Israel. All forms of Dispensationalism assert that God has two redemptive plans: one for Israel and one for the Church. Charles Ryrie declared this to be the sine qua non of Dispensational Theology: “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct….This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive.” Without this particular principium (Latin: beginning, first principle), Dispensationalism disintegrates as a distinct theological system. Thus, New Covenant Theology especially challenges this fundamental tenet of Dispensational Theology.
The Old Testament Scriptures record that Yahweh bound Himself to the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai via the Old or Mosaic Covenant. This was a conditional covenant, for it is written in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Notice the very clear cause and effect relationship in God’s declaration to the people of Israel: if they will obey Him and keep His covenant, then they will be His very own possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. Thus, the Old Covenant set national Israel apart from all other nations as God’s special covenant people (cf. Eph 2:11-16) on the condition of Israel’s obedience. What was the people’s response to Yahweh’s declaration? They answered, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exod 19:8). Four days later, Moses led the people of Israel in a ceremony to formally ratify God’s covenant with Israel. After building an altar and conducting sacrifices (Exod 24:4-5), Moses sprinkled the altar with half of the blood from the sacrifices (Exod 24:6b), thereby signifying the violent death that would come to Yahweh if He did not uphold His obligations in the covenant (a clear impossibility). Moses then immediately read “the book of the covenant…in the hearing of people,” who in turn responded, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” (Exod 24:7). After doing so, Moses took the other half of the sacrificial blood and sprinkled it upon the people, thereby signifying the violent death that would come to them if they did not fulfill their covenantal obligations (Exod 24:8). The ceremony concluded with a ‘covenant meal,’ during which Moses, Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and seventy of the elders of Israel “ate and drank” in Yahweh’s presence (Exod 24:9-11).
Did Israel fulfill her covenantal obligations? Unfortunately, she did not. While Moses was atop Mt. Sinai with Yahweh, the Israelites fashioned a golden calf and worshipped it saying, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exod 32:8). When Moses descended the mountain and witnessed this harlotry with his own eyes, he smashed the first set of the Ten Commandments, symbolizing Israel’s breach of the covenant (Exod 32:19). After destroying the calf of gold (Exod 32:20), he gathered the Levites who went through the camp slaying “about three thousand men” (Exod 32:28). Sadly, such harlotry largely defined Israel’s history as God’s special covenant people. In Jeremiah 31:32, Yahweh through the prophet Jeremiah described the Old Covenant as “the covenant which I made with their [the Jews] fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them.” Although Yahweh would punish Israel whenever the nation broke the Old Covenant, He would always raise up members of Israel’s elect remnant to renew the covenant until the time He saw fit to terminate it.
The Old Covenant community of Israel was largely unregenerate. Jeremiah 9:26b rightly declares that “all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (cf. Isa 1:9; Heb 3:16-4:6). Why? The Old Covenant was a “ministry of death” (2 Cor 3:7) and “condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9), because the Old Covenant community, apart from the internal (i.e. regenerative) working of the Holy Spirit, was utterly incapable of keeping the Law. As a result, God promised to make “a new covenant” which not only would not be like the Old Covenant (Jer 31:31-33) but would also be founded “on better promises” (Heb 8:6). When this new covenant came, the Old Covenant would be set aside “because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect)” (Heb 7:18-19). The Messiah would be the mediator of this new covenant (Heb 8:6). By His death, resurrection, and ascension, the Lord Jesus Christ both established the New Covenant and set aside the Old Covenant (cf. Heb 8:13). Thus, when the Old Covenant came to an end, Israel’s status as God’s special covenant people also came to an end. In response to Israel’s persistent and pervasive unbelief, Christ Himself proclaimed to unbelieving Israel: “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt 21:43). All who rejected Christ would be destroyed (Acts 3:19-24; cf. Matthew 22:1-14; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) by having the curses of the Law unleashed upon them (e.g. the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; cf. Deut 28).
New Covenant Theology emphatically declares that there has been one people of God throughout salvation history: the elect of God – all saved by grace through faith in the Christ. That being said, New Covenant Theologians also teach that “all the elect of God throughout time” were first constituted as the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2 (and its apostolic extensions – Acts 8, 10, 19). In other words, the Church did not exist in the Old Testament prior to the giving of the Holy Spirit (John 7:39; 17:21; Heb. 11:39-40). The Church, the spiritual body of Christ, could not have existed prior to the death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement of its Head, Christ Jesus (Col. 1:26-27). The Church was born as a spiritual body when the Lord Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:33) following His heavenly enthronement. The Holy Spirit (via Spirit Baptism – which occurred at Pentecost), unites God’s elect (believing Jews & believing Gentiles) with Christ in one corporate spiritual body, the Church. Thus, it is written in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (see also Eph. 2:19-21; Col. 1:18, 24).
New Covenant Theology also asserts that the Church is the continuation and maturation (Gal. 3:22-4:7) of the believing remnant of Israel under the Old Covenant and, as a result, is the eschatological Israel. In other words, the Church is the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel as the people of God. God’s Word resoundingly confirms this truth in that the New Testament writers frequently apply terminology used of Israel in the Old Testament Scriptures to the Church, the New Covenant people of God. For example, the Old Testament Scriptures refers to Israel as “the Seed of Abraham” (Gen. 12:1-3), God’s “own possession” (Exod. 19:5), “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6-7), and God’s people (Hos. 1:10-11). Meanwhile, the New Testament Scriptures refer to the Church as “the Seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:28-29), God’s “own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9), “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9), and God’s people (Rom. 9:24). The Apostle Paul also refers to the Church as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and “the Circumcision” (Phil. 3:3). In addition, whereas God’s Presence dwelt in the midst of Israel in the Jerusalem Temple, the Church is the corporate Temple of God in which the Holy Spirit dwells (Eph. 2:19-22). This biblical evidence surely demonstrates that the Church is the typological and eschatological fulfillment of Israel as the people of God.
The redemptive-historical (or maturation) progression is clearly set forth in Galatians 3:22-4:7. The Apostle Paul states: “before faith came, we [i.e. the ‘people of God’] were kept in custody under the law [i.e. the Law of Moses], being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed” (Gal 3:23). He proceeds to describe the Law of Moses as a temporary pedagogue, that is, “a tutor” (or babysitter) whose primary purpose was to direct God’s people “to Christ” (Gal 3:24). However, with the advent of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant, the people of God were liberated from their babysitter, the Mosaic Law (Gal 3:25). To demonstrate this point, Paul uses the illustration of an immature son who is essentially a slave until the time of his maturity (Gal 4:1-7). Galatians 4:1-3 declares: “Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father.” How does Paul apply this illustration? He does so with the following words: “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:3-5). What does Paul set forth as the evidence that God’s people have received “the adoption as sons?” The gift of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 4:6-7, the Apostle declares, “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (cf. Rom 8:15).
The one son in Galatians 4:1-7 illustrates that there is one people of God. In other words, this one son symbolizes not only God’s people in the Old Covenant era but also God’s people in the New Covenant era. So, how does the Apostle represent the redemptive-historical progression between these two eras? Paul associates the Old Covenant era, the time period when God’s people were under the bondage of the στοιχεια (stoiceia – “elemental things,” cf. Gal 4:3 – the Mosaic Law for the Jews; the pagan spirits for the Gentiles), with the period of the son’s immaturity when he is in essence a slave having been placed by his father under the guardianship of a tutor. In contrast, he associates the New Covenant era, when God’s people are liberated from the στοιχεια and receive the adoption as sons, with the period of the son’s maturity when he not only is freed from his tutor but also receives his full rights as his father’s son. The evidence that God’s people are no longer immature slaves but now mature sons is their reception of the promised Holy Spirit. In the same way that a mature adult is the fulfillment of an immature child, the Church, God’s New Covenant people, is the fulfillment of Israel, God’s Old Covenant people. Thus, the transition from the Old Covenant era to the New Covenant era is not the transition from a redemptive plan for Israel to a redemptive plan for the Church. Rather, it is the redemptive-historical transition of the one people of God (i.e. the elect) from immaturity to maturity.
The Old Covenant had to be removed prior to the birth of the Church, the spiritual body of the New Covenant. Why? Remember that the Old Covenant set Israel apart from all other nations as God’s special covenant people on condition of Israel’s obedience. Ephesians 2:11-16 also declares that the Law of Moses or Old Covenant functioned as both a “dividing wall” and an “enmity” to segregate Jew from Gentile. When the Old Covenant came to an end with the crucifixion of Christ (Eph 2:11-18; Col 2:13-15), Israel’s status as God’s special covenant people also came to an end – effectively desegregating Jews from Gentiles. When the Lord Jesus Christ poured out His Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) and its apostolic extensions (Acts 8, 10, 19), He united Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, and the disciples of John the Baptist into one spiritual body, His Church. The creation of this new spiritual body removed all spiritual distinctions between these groups and declared all ethnic and racial considerations to be moot before God. In Colossians 3:11, Paul teaches that “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” Galatians 3:28 proclaims, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Again, 1 Corinthians 12:13 teaches, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit [ESV].” In Romans 10:12-13, Paul declares: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved’” (cf. John 1:12-13; Rom 1:16-17; 2:7-10; Gal 3:13-14). Clearly, the New Testament teaches that there is no longer a spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile. Israel was God’s Old Covenant people (cf. Exod 19:3-6; Heb 8:13), a national body composed of believing Jews and unbelieving Jews. The Church is God’s New Covenant people, a transnational spiritual body comprised of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-18).
Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody 1966; reprint 1995, 2007), 46-8.