The Christmas season is upon us, and it seemed fitting to me to give a gift to all my friends who are theology nerds: twelve days of discussion about the biblical covenants. In my corner of social media, this is without question one of the most debated theological topics, and too often we descend into tribalism, throwing quotations at each other from Spurgeon and Hodge. It is not unlike the scene after all the Christmas gifts have been unwrapped and the young boys build forts from the boxes, lobbing balls of discarded paper and bits of tinsel at one another.
“There has to be a better way,” I said to myself. Thus, an idea was born.
What I am about to release to you has involved a considerable amount of time and research, eating up my limited energies for much of the autumn. I set out with three goals: 1) Gain a better understanding of the biblical covenants. 2) Demonstrate that I have thought through these issues critically. 3) Provide a basis for this debate to continue in a more positive and constructive manner. (An unstated final goal was to create a stockpile of covenant articles equal to that of His Heidelness, which I might subsequently use to bombard unsuspecting Twitter followers.)
I have already experienced success. Whereas I previously felt somewhat overwhelmed by covenant theology, I now feel that I can discuss these topics with a certain amount of confidence, although I still have much to learn. Additionally, I reached some new conclusions as a result of my study, and I feel that my faith has been strengthened as a result. It was never my goal to convert everyone to my own opinions. This is not about convincing you as much as demonstrating the validity of my own view from a biblical standpoint.
The issue at the heart of our covenant debates is the comparative natures of the Old and New Covenants and how they relate to one another. I carried out an investigation of the scriptures, seeking to understand what is old and what is new, what’s continued and what’s been shooed. Over the next twelve days, I will be publishing a series of eleven articles (with a break for the Lord’s Day), each of which is aimed at answering the question, “Do the Old and New Covenants have the same substance?” If I have already lost you, don’t worry. Things will become clearer when I begin examining a series of related questions, the first of which is…
What is meant by substance vs. administration?
Historic Reformed theology recognizes two overarching covenants in salvation history. The first is the Covenant of Works that was made with Adam prior to the Fall, under which he was promised eternal life if he followed God’s commands. (Genesis 2:15-17) That covenant was broken, and thus all the descendants of Adam have reaped the covenant curse: death, both physically and spiritually. (Romans 5:12-14, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22) In order to provide a means of salvation, God made a second covenant known as the Covenant of Grace. Christ became the sacrifice for sin under this covenant, and all who are united to Him in faith receive forgiveness of sins, imputed righteousness, and eternal life. (The name “Covenant of Redemption” is used to describe an intra-Trinitarian covenant prior to Creation.)
This view of the dual covenants is held not only by those in Presbyterian and other confessionally Reformed churches, but also the Particular Baptists who subscribe to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. There is therefore a certain amount of unity at the foundational level. However, there are also some very significant differences in how these Christians understand the covenants, and this causes them to diverge on both sacramentology and ecclesiology.
This division is a result of how the two groups understand the Covenant of Grace. The confessionally Reformed have traditionally taught that there is a distinction between the substance and administration of this covenant. Specifically, the Old and New Covenants had different administrations, but the same substance. (Particular Baptists have also used these terms, but only in reference to the New Covenant.) Allow me to explain what they mean by that.
The substance of the Covenant of Grace is most properly Christ Himself. To have the substance of the covenant is to have union with Christ and thus reconciliation and fellowship with the Triune God. The administration of the Covenant of Grace is the ordained means by which grace is given to all members of the visible church (i.e. everyone who is a member of the church congregation) and Christ is really and truly administered to the invisible church (i.e. the elect known only to God). Perhaps your head is full of questions at this point, but just note that the substance is the thing that never changes and is given to the elect. The administration has changed over time according to the decree of God. For example, we no longer sacrifice animals, but we do have the Lord’s Supper.
Those who follow a confessionally Reformed interpretation of covenant theology believe that every covenant made after the Fall has the same substance. These were not fully separate covenants, but merely different administrations or dispensations of the same Covenant of Grace. This is why they see such great continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Consider these words from the Westminster Confession of Faith.
1.This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.
2.This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.
3.Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.
Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VII
Reformed theology in the tradition of Calvin, Olevianus, Witsius, Turretin, et al is based on this concept that all the post-Fall covenants have the same substance. My goal is to determine whether or not this is a correct interpretation of scripture, specifically by determining whether the Old and New Covenants share the same substance. Although there is some disagreement about what is meant by “Old Covenant”, I will for the purposes of these articles typically use a narrow definition that includes only the Mosaic Covenant made with the nation of Israel following the Exodus. (I promise I will get to the Abrahamic Covenant as well. Have no fear! )
How does the Bible describe the New Covenant?
If we are to determine whether the New Covenant has the same substance as the Old Covenant, then we must first consider how the Bible itself describes the New Covenant. This is a bit more difficult than it sounds, because there are times where it is not entirely clear whether the New Covenant is the covenant in question.
I have attempted to identify all the instances when the New Covenant is discussed in scripture using three criteria, any combination of which suggests to me that what it is talking about is indeed new. First, the text can explicitly refer to the covenant as “new”. Second, the text can differentiate the covenant from the Old (Mosaic) Covenant in such a way as to prove that it is novel. Third, a prophecy made during the period of the Mosaic Covenant, but after the institution of the Davidic Covenant, can refer to a new covenant being made at some point in the future.
This is as good a point as any to mention that the Bible uses two different Hebrew words to refer to the action of making a covenant, one of which is typically translated as “make” in the New American Standard Bible (the translation I use in all my articles, hereafter NASB), and the other of which is typically translated as “establish”. The first word is karath and the latter is quwm.
Karath literally refers to cutting something off, cutting it down, or destroying it. However, it is also used metaphorically to refer to cutting (i.e. making) a covenant. This is because in the Ancient Near East, covenants were often formed by cutting animals in half and walking between the pieces, as was the case in the Abrahamic Covenant. (Genesis chapter 15) This practice is also described in the Book of Jeremiah.
I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts—the officials of Judah and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers and the priests and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf—I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life.
Quwm is a more common word than karath, although both appear hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Quwm is a verb that means to rise up, raise, or establish. If it is used in reference to a covenant, the third meaning is the one that the author intends. When I examined the occurences of these two words, it was clear that karath was being used to refer more specifically to the inauguration of a covenant, whereas quwm was also used to refer to a kind of restatement or fulfillment of a covenant that had already been instituted.
The point here is not that quwm is never used to refer to a covenant’s inauguration, for it is in the case of the Noahic Covenant. (Genesis 9:9-11) Rather, the point is that karath is more specific, for it has the stronger notion of cutting a covenant and inaugurating it in blood. The three clearest cases in the Old Testament where it is said that the Lord made (karath) a covenant are Genesis 15:18, Exodus 24:8, and Psalm 89:3. These represent the institutions of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenant, respectively. (Exodus 34:10 is a kind of outlier that speaks in the future tense.)
I focus on the importance of the word karath to demonstrate that, when it is used, it implies the actual institution of a covenant rather than a kind of recapitulation. Therefore, when I see this term being used in scripture after the Mosaic and Davidic Covenants were in force, I regard it as further evidence that what is being discussed is the New Covenant. Having laid all that groundwork, let us examine some of the ways that scripture describes this New Covenant.
1. It is new.
This may seem blatantly obvious. Nevertheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that the language about this covenant being new comes to us from scripture. Only one passage in the Old Testament explicitly uses the term.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their 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,” declares the Lord.
This passage describes the covenant as new on three levels. First, it explicitly calls it “new”. Second, it differentiates it from the Mosaic Covenant and says they are “not like” each other. Third, it uses the Hebrew term for cutting a covenant, karath, implying a new institution. It is therefore a very significant passage when considering the New Covenant. The next time that we see the words “new covenant” used in scripture is at the Last Supper.
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”
The Greek word that is translated as “new” in that passage is kainos. This term can refer to newness in respect to either a) form or b) substance. It can imply something that is fresh, novel, or newly made. The Greek word neos is used more specifically for something that is new or young in terms of age (as in Hebrews 12:24, which also refers to the New Covenant). Therefore, the use of the word kainos tells us that Christ felt the covenant was “new” in terms of either form or substance in addition to age. The terminology of newness is also carried over into the Book of Hebrews.
For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
Again, the Greek word here is kainos, but what exactly does that imply? Any Christian who holds to the words of scripture will agree that the New Covenant is “new” in at least some sense. However, the confessionally Reformed and the Particular Baptists disagree on the extent of this novelty. We must therefore look at the other ways that the Bible describes the New Covenant.
2. It is everlasting.
The most common term that the Old Testament prophets use to describe the New Covenant is “everlasting”. The Hebrew word is ‵owlam, which implies a substantial duration of time, either in the sense of having been around “from of old”, being permanent, or going on for a long time into the future. It is most often translated in the NASB as everlasting, eternal, forever, perpetual, or ancient. The context can reveal to us different subtleties in the meaning of ‵owlam, and this will become particularly important when we consider some of the aspects of the Old Testament covenants that are said to be ‵owlam and yet have been changed, fulfilled, or replaced in some manner.
Now, let us examine some passages that use this word in reference to the New Covenant. First, a verse from the Prophet Isaiah.
“Incline your ear and come to Me.
Listen, that you may live;
And I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
According to the faithful mercies shown to David.”
The context of this verse is important. The prophet seems to refer to the nation of Israel in the beginning, urging them to come to the Lord for mercy. However, he then refers to an everlasting covenant that will be made (karath) according to the mercies shown to David. That is, because of God’s covenant love for David (and it seems, by extension, the people of Israel) He will make a new, everlasting covenant. I identify this as the New Covenant because of the use of karath and the fact that this passage seems to have Messianic references. The Lord says through Isaiah, “Behold, I have made him a witness to the peoples, / A leader and commander for the peoples.” (v. 4) Here he apparently means David’s descendant, Jesus Christ. He writes of this person, “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, / And a nation which knows you not will run to you, / Because of the Lord your God, even the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you.” (v. 5) I identify another possible Messianic reference a few verses later.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
The “word” mentioned here could be the words of God in general, but I feel that it also points forward to the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. You may be thinking, “But it says ‘it’ and not ‘He’.” True enough, but that is the English translator’s decision. The last four lines above, which compose the entirety of verse 11, only represent nine Hebrew words. This means that many of the other words have to be intuited by the translators. Therefore, the possible meaning I have put forward is indeed possible. Moreover, Isaiah himself may not have comprehended the full meaning of what the Holy Spirit revealed, though we now understand it in light of God’s completed revelation. When we consider all these factors, I think it is clear that Isaiah 55:3 is talking about the New Covenant, and it calls that covenant ‵owlam, or everlasting.
Another place where we see a covenant described as ‵owlam is in the Book of Jeremiah. The context is that the Lord is describing to Jeremiah how the southern kingdom of Judah is about to be taken into exile by the Babylonians as punishment for its continual, unrepentant sin. The Lord then says that He will restore the people to the land.
Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger, in My wrath and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety. They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me.
Here we see the everlasting covenant connected with two things. First, the people are restored to the land. Second, God will give them a heart to fear Him always. That may seem strange, as we know that not all of the Jewish people who returned to the Promised Land ended up having a heart for God, nor did all their offspring fear the Lord. In an earlier article, I discussed the concept of a righteous remnant in the prophetic books: the true Israel within Israel with whom God would make His New Covenant. I believe that is what we are seeing here. Compare with this passage:
“In those days and at that time,” declares the Lord, “the sons of Israel will come, both they and the sons of Judah as well; they will go along weeping as they go, and it will be the Lord their God they will seek. They will ask for the way to Zion, turning their faces in its direction; they will come that they may join themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten.
Again, we see the people returning to the land, and this time we have the added element of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah being reunited. It would seem that the covenant described here is a new one, for the people had already been joined to God in the Mosaic Covenant. However, that covenant was broken, and this new one seems to be differentiated by the fact that it will be everlasting. Let us move on to the Book of Ezekiel.
“Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done,” the Lord God declares.
This is an interesting passage because it seems to make a clear distinction between “My covenant with you in the days of your youth”, which I think we can safely assume is the Mosaic Covenant, and “an everlasting covenant”. The Lord says that because He is remembering the former covenant, He will make a new one. He speaks of restoring Israel’s daughters, “but not because of your covenant”. This is a somewhat confusing verse. It seems to me that what God is saying is that while He is making the new covenant because He remembers the former one, the restoration is not actually taking place as a result of that former covenant. Rather, the forgiveness and knowledge of the Lord will come about as a result of the everlasting covenant.
“I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.”
Here we see the everlasting covenant linked with what I believe is an eschatological promise: the dwelling of God with His chosen people of all nations in the new heaven and new earth. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…’” (Revelation 21:3) Therefore, I would conclude again that this everlasting covenant is not being made with all of physical Israel, but what the Apostle Paul called “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (Romans 11:5). We will consider this in greater depth later.
3. It is wrapped up in a person.
We already saw in our consideration of Isaiah 55 how the everlasting covenant (i.e. the New Covenant) was linked with Messianic promises. Two other passages in that book seem to refer to the New Covenant when they speak of a specific person being a covenant. That is certainly strange language, and it is worth examining.
“I am the Lord, I have called You in righteousness,
I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You,
And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the nations,
To open blind eyes,
To bring out prisoners from the dungeon
And those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”
This is a clear reference to the coming Messiah, the one who will be “a light to the nations” and release people from spiritual imprisonment. The Lord says through Isaiah that the Messiah will be appointed as “a covenant to the people”. Similar language is used at another point in this book.
Thus says the Lord,
“In a favorable time I have answered You,
And in a day of salvation I have helped You;
And I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people,
To restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages…”
The context of this verse makes it clear that the reference is to the Messiah. It speaks of a person formed from the womb to be a servant, who will restore Israel and make salvation reach to the ends of the earth. (vs. 5-6) Therefore, I believe that the rather odd wording “give You for a covenant of the people” is properly capitalized in verse 8, for it means Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It may seem odd, but Isaiah’s prophecies indicate that the Messiah will not just be involved in the forthcoming covenant. There is some sense in which He will actually be a covenant for the people. Here we must return to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20b) The New Covenant is in some sense indistinguishable from Christ Himself, for He is both the means and the end of said covenant.
4. It involves true knowledge of God.
Truly knowing God involves more than simply being aware that He exists or saying His name. The Old Testament links the knowledge of God with covenant obedience, right belief, truthfulness, and justice. The Apostle Paul later taught that this knowledge could only be gained through the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:6-16) That is why so many of the people of Israel could live under the Mosaic Covenant, in which many of God’s truths were revealed to them, and yet still be completely lacking in true knowledge of the Almighty. Hosea prophesied that this was their downfall.
Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel,
For the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land,
Because there is no faithfulness or kindness
Or knowledge of God in the land…
Yet let no one find fault, and let none offer reproof;
For your people are like those who contend with the priest.
So you will stumble by day,
And the prophet also will stumble with you by night;
And I will destroy your mother.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
Because you have rejected knowledge,
I also will reject you from being My priest.
Since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children.
Hosea 4:1, 4-6
Both the people and the priests are blamed in this passage: the former for contending, and the latter for failing to properly teach. Even the so-called prophets are said to stumble, and the Lord pledges to reject and forget them…and their children. Notice how this lack of knowledge is something that seems to affect the people at their very core. Because they have no knowledge of God, they have no real knowledge of His laws.
“Everyone deceives his neighbor
And does not speak the truth,
They have taught their tongue to speak lies;
They weary themselves committing iniquity.
Your dwelling is in the midst of deceit;
Through deceit they refuse to know Me,” declares the Lord.
Here we see that the people’s lack of knowledge is not due to any failure on God’s part. It is connected with their sinfulness. They are so caught up in deceit that they actively refuse to know the Lord. This was covenant unfaithfulness. The Book of Deuteronomy includes several commands for the people to know God’s character.
- “Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the Lord, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other.” (4:39)
- “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments…” (7:9)
- “Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.” (8:5)
- “Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people.” (9:6)
Despite all those commands, Moses implies later in that book that the Lord Himself must somehow provide for them to know Him when he says, “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” (29:4) Yes, in order for us to know God at all, He must reveal Himself. Not only that, but the Spirit must enter our hearts to make us understand. Only in this true knowledge of the Lord can we possibly please Him, and it comes from God Himself. As the Lord said through the Prophet Hosea,
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,
And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant;
There they have dealt treacherously against Me.
How did the people transgress the covenant? Because they performed sacrifices but did not have loyalty or knowledge of God. Thus, their sacrifices were in vain. They were guilty of covenant unfaithfulness. In order for any sinful person to keep one of God’s covenants, the Lord must work a miracle in their heart to allow them to know Him. Let us look now at how Jeremiah describes the New Covenant.
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
How many times during the time of the Mosaic Covenant had God made His name known to Israel? Dozens of these occasions are recorded in scripture. “They shall know that I am the Lord…” “I will make My name known…” “I am the Lord your God.” Like a broken record, we hear it play. If the people had truly known the Lord, they would not have broken the covenant. As Paul said, “we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8) Not all were predestined to this knowledge, but some were.
Through the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord told His people that He would make a New Covenant. He would place the law within them and they would “all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them”. Who is “them” but those who are part of that New Covenant? The Lord says that these people would have their iniquities forgiven, and they would all know Him. How? Because He would work a miracle in them in which the law would be written on their hearts. Hosea spoke of this same covenant saying,
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them
With the beasts of the field,
The birds of the sky
And the creeping things of the ground.
And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land,
And will make them lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the Lord.”
Here we see eschatological promises that are often attached to the proclamation of the New Covenant: there will at last be peace on earth. That promise is yet to be fulfilled, but notice how the Lord said He would betroth His covenant people to Himself “forever”. They would be betrothed in righteousness and justice, the very things that Israel had failed to uphold so often. They would be betrothed in faithfulness, something that Israel had never shown under the Mosaic Covenant. What makes me think that this would be a newly instituted covenant? Because of the use of the word karath (“make” in bold).
The scriptures tell us that those who are united to Christ in the New Covenant and have the Spirit living within them have a true knowledge of God. As the Spirit illumines their minds to understand the written Word of God, they do not need new revelations. There is not an ascending ladder of secret knowledge as there was within Gnosticism. Those who have the Spirit comprehend the things of God.
As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.
1 John 2:24-27
This is just the beginning, my friends. Come back next time for a consideration of how the Old and New Covenants compare in terms of their membership.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.