Christ Was Born for More Than Death

“The Marriage of the Virgin” by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-6 (from “Scenes from the Life of the Virgin”)

As we near that magical day when children will eat far too many sweets and parents will get far too little sleep, we are continually reminded that the Christmas season isn’t just about Santa Claus, elves, and reindeer (a.k.a. caribou). Slogans such as “Put Christ back in Christmas!” and “Jesus is the reason for the season!” abound, all of them meant to call our minds back to the true meaning of the holiday, or at least question whether or not atheists should be allowed to join in the fun.

One saying that seems to have a stronger theological grounding is some variation on the following: “Jesus Christ was born in order to die.” The motivation behind this choice of phrase is a good one. While the manger, angels, and donkey are all nice, the story of Christmas cannot be properly told without mentioning the problem Jesus came to solve. He was not born merely to proclaim peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Rather, He came to save us from our deadliest enemy: sin. The peace He brought us is not a temporary, earthly one, but rather an eternal, heavenly one. He made it possible for us to be permanently at peace with God.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate and even necessary to link the incarnation of Jesus Christ with His atonement. Christmas means nothing without Easter. The first step in appreciating Christmas is to understand that the Son of God took on flesh to make an end of death and sin. His sacrifice allows us to be forgiven. We must never lose sight of that fact or diminish its importance.

Nevertheless, stating that Jesus was born to die puts us in danger of minimizing other parts of His work that were equally important and necessary. The Son of God became incarnate as a human being not only to remove our sin, but also to make us righteous. Yes, those two things are connected, but they are not exactly the same. Continue reading

The Girl Empress Gets Thoroughly Mortified

I was recently honored to appear on the Mortification of Spin podcast and talk with my friend Aimee Byrd and frenemy Dr. Carl Trueman about my new historical novel, The Girl Empress. You can listen to the podcast at this link or through the iTunes store. I thoroughly recommend Mortification of Spin to you for all your theological podcast needs, provided you remember they are all lapsed Baptists in need of God’s grace. (That’s a little joke. Nice Presbys.)

Unchanging Love, Unchanging God

NASA photo of the Omega Nebula

Why does God love us? How does He love us? These seem like appropriate questions to be asking at a time of year when we are celebrating God’s love as evidenced in Christ’s Incarnation. A thousand hymns proclaim to us the love of God, and yet there is some disagreement as to exactly how and why we receive that love. Does God love everyone equally? Does He love you now as much as He ever will? Is there anything you can do to gain more of His love?

Perhaps you have heard a statement like this at some point in your life: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. He loves you unconditionally.” I have certainly heard such things on numerous occasions. They are typically spoken as words of comfort to doubting hearts, or words of correction to those who pursue works righteousness. However, there are some who proclaim them unbiblical.

This is a topic of great practical importance for the average believer. It is no crime to want to understand if, how, and why God loves you. If we go to great lengths to pursue the love of human beings, then we surely ought to be putting in an even greater effort to earn the love of God Almighty. But is there any amount of effort that can earn God’s love?

Some debate whether God’s love is conditional or unconditional, or if in fact it is partially one and partially the other. These terms can have different meanings for various people, but the real issues at hand are whether God loves all human beings, if He loves them all in the same way, on what basis He loves, and if there is anything we can possibly do to increase His love. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: What about Abraham? (Part 2)

“Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan” by József Molnár, circa 1850

In the previous article, I began my consideration of the Abrahamic Covenant on its own, without specifically tying it to the Old Covenant. I made my case, based on the writings of the Apostle Paul, that Abraham had two progenies: a physical progeny and a spiritual progeny. Each had its own way of being connected to Abraham, received a different set of promises, and was brought into its own covenant. There was some overlap between these two progenies, as some of Abraham’s physical descendants became part of his spiritual progeny through faith. However, there is a general distinction made between the two, and Gentiles can only be connected to Abraham through faith. Having made these points, I would like to move on and consider some other aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant that are necessary for determining its overall nature.

Was the Abrahamic Covenant a Saving Covenant?

As I discussed earlier, some of the confessionally Reformed argue that the Abrahamic Covenant was not part of the Old Covenant. Therefore, when Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and it became obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), the covenant with Abraham remained in force. The stronger connection is not between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, but between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. Now, as I have explained, this is a distinction without much of a difference, for such Christians usually still believe that the Old (Mosaic) Covenant was part of the Covenant of Grace and had the same substance as the New Covenant. However, the goal of their argument is to prove that certain aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant are maintained in the present Church.

For example, such a person would argue that the New Covenant community is comparable to national Israel of the Old Testament, because we are all under the Abrahamic Covenant. The Church is therefore a mixed community of both regenerate believers and the unregenerate. You are initiated into the covenant by birth, even as Abraham’s physical descendants were. You receive the covenant sign, which is now baptism instead of circumcision. As physical circumcision required all covenant members to be circumcised in their hearts through faith, so baptism now places a demand on New Covenant members to be united to Christ by faith or be cut off from the covenant promises. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: What about Abraham? (Part 1)

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio, circa 1603

Hello again, friends! I seldom drone on for this long about one particular subject, but it seems you have drawn the short straw. Thank you for returning once again and tolerating my continued chatter.

Up to this point, in seeking to determine if the Old and New Covenants have the same substance, I have largely focused on the differences between the covenants made at Sinai and Calvary. This is for two reasons: 1) Most of the contrasts made in the New Testament that mention the “Old Covenant” or “first covenant” clearly refer to things that were part of the Mosaic Law. 2) Many of the confessionally Reformed persons with whom I converse reject the view that the Mosaic Covenant had any kind of different nature from the New Covenant in terms of being works-based or grace-based.

To be perfectly honest, defining the Mosaic Covenant and contrasting it with the New Covenant is a fairly straightforward business. Sure, there are people who raise objections, but I believe the Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews have presented us with ample evidence to suggest that the Mosaic Covenant is inferior to the New Covenant in every way. It offered temporal blessings in exchange for human works, as opposed to eternal blessings in exchange for Christ’s works.

There is, however, a more subtle argument out there that pins its hopes on the Abrahamic Covenant. In making a sharp distinction between the Old Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant, this view partially concedes the works-based nature of the Old Covenant while maintaining that there were similar grace-based natures in the Abrahamic and New Covenants. This argument has some merit to it, as we have already seen the importance of Abraham in salvation history. The Apostle Paul tells us that those who are united to Christ by faith are truly Abraham’s descendants, while also stating that the promise of a Savior was given as part of the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, there is no question of a link between Abraham and those Gentiles who have faith. The disagreement comes in regard to the precise nature of that link and the covenant made with Abraham. Therefore, we must ask the following question. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: What about Moses?

“Moses Striking the Rock” by Pieter de Grebber, circa 1630 (Note that Aaron is dressed like a Catholic bishop.)

Many thanks to all who have hung in there and read everything up to this point. May the Lord bless you for your kindness. I have covered enough ground that I feel almost ready to answer the question, “Do the Old Covenant and the New Covenant have the same substance?” However, it would not do for me to rush things. (Here I permit you to laugh.) I want to deal with some final points that might be raised to suggest that either the Mosaic or the Abrahamic Covenants were saving covenants. I shall continue without delay.

Was the Mosaic Covenant a Saving Covenant?

In my previous articles, I argued that the Mosaic Covenant was one and the same with the Mosaic Law, it did not have Christ as a mediator, the sacrifices were not sufficient to atone for sins, the priests could not really bring people into God’s presence, and practically everything about it was typological. In short, it was a covenant based on human working. It was not part of the Covenant of Grace. Everyone who was justified by faith prior to the coming of Christ actually received that imputed righteousness through the New Covenant.

Two objections have commonly been raised in response to this argument: 1) Although God’s people under the Mosaic Covenant had different and typological sacraments, they nevertheless received Christ through these sacraments. 2) It would not have been possible for the Old Testament saints to have been saved under a covenant that had not yet been inaugurated. Therefore, they must have been saved through the Old Covenant. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Saving Covenant

WARNING: After reading this article, you may have a sudden desire for a glass of wi…err…grape juice and some ciabatta dipped in olive oil.

Back again? How kind of you! Today I am going to discuss an issue of great practical importance. Every person longs for assurance of salvation. God has promised that those He knew and loved before the foundation of the world will not only be justified, but also sanctified and glorified. They will persevere to the end.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Romans 8:28-30

Christians who hold to the view of soteriology known as monergism believe that those who are elected by God for salvation will most certainly be brought to life spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit. They will just as assuredly be united to Christ and justified by His imputed righteousness. However, one disagreement among monergists comes in regard to the nature of the Old and New Covenants. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Defining the Law (Part 2)

“Sacrifice of Jeroboam” by Claes Moeyaert, circa 1641

In the previous essay, I began analyzing how the Law is discussed in the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews and what the implications are for our understanding of the biblical covenants. I noted the existence of the Covenant of Works and moral law, in addition to the Mosaic Law that was given to the people of Israel at Sinai. The challenge is to differentiate between these types of law in the writings of Paul and the author of Hebrews. Therefore, we must continue with our consideration of that all-important question.

What is meant by “the Law”?

The New Testament epistles often place “the Law” and “faith” in opposition to one another. While both are holy, there is only one that is capable of justifying sinners. But why is it so important to know if “the Law” means the Mosaic Law? In short, because we are attempting to determine whether the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and the New Covenant have the same substance. Do they both offer the righteousness of Christ by grace through faith? Are they both saving covenants in that respect? Obviously, if “the Law” means the Law of Moses, and if that in turn means the Mosaic Covenant, it starts to answer the question of whether or not the Old and New Covenants have the same substance. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Defining the Law (Part 1)

“Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1659

Welcome back! So far in my efforts to answer the question, “Did the Old and New Covenants have the same substance?” I have considered how the Bible describes the New Covenant, how the memberships compared, what is meant by “types and shadows”, if the systems of mediation differed, and whether the Old Covenant was completely broken prior to the coming of Christ. Today, I must address another issue that tends to come up in the writings of Paul and the Book of Hebrews.

What is meant by “the Law”?

You do not have to read very far in the New Testament epistles before you see contrasts made between “the Law” and faith. Particularly when taken out of context, these quotes present a harsh dichotomy.

  • “…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight…” (Romans 3:20a)
  • “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28)
  • “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
  • “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse…” (Galatians 3:10a)
  • “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.” (Hebrews 10:1)

Everyone agrees that there is some kind of contrast being made here, but how that contrast is interpreted depends very much on how the words themselves are interpreted, and one word above all others: law. Continue reading

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Broken Covenant

“Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1630

Old Covenant, New Covenant. Red covenant, blue covenant. We’re halfway through this comparison of the Old and New Covenants, the stated purpose of which is to answer the following question: “Do these covenants have the same substance?” If you need to review what that means, do take a look at the previous articles, particularly the first one. I will now move on to consider the next question within a question.

Was the Old Covenant Completely Broken?

A covenant is essentially a contractual agreement. It has at least two parties. It includes benefits, but it also includes responsibilities. The covenants between God and man can be compared in many ways to the treaties that existed in the Ancient Near East between suzerains and vassals. (Read a summary of this concept here.) Alternatively, they have something in common with the feudal relationships of medieval Europe. If you are not familiar with either of those, have no fear! The basic idea is that there is someone greater (in this case God) who condescends to enter a contractual relationship with someone lesser (in this case a human or humans). The greater person, who is comparable to the lord in a feudal relationship, agrees to provide certain benefits—protection, land, legal rights, etc.—while the lesser person, who is comparable to a serf, agrees to obey and serve the greater one. Continue reading