Tag Archives: Covenant

Covenant, Part II

As we all know, the whole concept of covenant was so changed or became so obsolete that in most places of the occurrence of the word in the New Testament the word is translated as “testament”, a secondary meaning of the word in any language.  “Testament” is a legal enough arrangement or document, but one in which the Party of the First Part does all the “work” – even to the point of to make the covenant, and the Party of the Second Part doesn’t do a thing except receive and enjoy the benefits of the contract.  So abolished is the covenant idea and arrangement now that not only is the “new covenant” known by the name of “will” or “testament”, but the Old, as well, (which was undeniably a very law-full arrangement, with duties and responsibilities assigned to bother parties) has been given the name “testament”.  (It is entitled to the new term not only because, despite its different nature – law versus grace – it anticipated or prepared for the grace era, but itself was plenty gracious on the score of God even entering contract, including amongst the human responsibilities numerous pictures of forgiveness, and in the fact that God did not inflict the penalties of repeated violations; the “covenant of grace”, let it be said again, began after the fall.  What we call the Old Testament is only one, old, now obsolete dispensation or era in the history of covenant, dispensation or testament of grace.

The clearest indication of the termination of any Abraham covenant today is found in Galatians generally, especially 3:16, where Abraham’s “seed” is said to be Christ, and “covenant” becomes “promise”.  Abandonment or conversion of the word “covenant” finds clear statement in 3:20,26-29, which says that covenant calls for 2 parties and a mediator, but the present arrangement is such that the two parties (and the mediator) have become one!  (Cf John 17:20-24)

That brings us to the question as to what “covenant” – the word and the notion of – (in the “old” covenant) symbolized.  As was already said, the gracious relationship which undeserving Israel enjoyed with God is a picture of the church; “a royal nation, a holy priesthood”, a spiritual “body-politic” without any racial, national, sexual or other distinctions, but all one in Christ Jesus.  To expect any literal, physical future for Israel as a political/religious entity is really as irrelevant as expecting the restoration, say, of the now extinct nations who are mentioned in some of those “millenarian” prophecies, and ignores the numberless places in the New Testament in which the all-nation body of Christ is called the Israel of God, the “Twelve tribes”, the house of David, etc.

On the individual level, covenant in the Old Testament symbolizes the intimate, indissoluble, “one-person” union that we have in Christ, which is symbolized in the New Testament by the picture (type) of marriage.  The Bible has many other types to depict it, such as body, building, flock, tree, etc., but marriage is the most apt metaphor for the simple reason that a Christian couple in themselves constitute a church, a tiny congregation of “2 or 3” who are in Christ; see Ephesians 6.

Notice the parallels; marriage is undeniably a covenant, a contract.  The thing that makes two people legally one is the civil document; where does a divorcing couple go to annul their union?  To the court.  So no one denies that we are in a covenant with God, as regards ourselves and our children (the product of a marriage).  BUT, what happily married person ever thinks of their union as primarily a civil, legal, contractual affair?  What successful marriage was ever built upon a spelled-out arrangement of responsibilities and duties, with consequent benefits and penalties?  If some one says about type-fulfillment that Israel was “married” to God in the Old Testament, the answer is that indeed she was, but only in the legal sense outlined here.  The marriage customs of those days, in which a person could be legally, officially “married” to some one for seven years or longer, the severing of which was “divorce” (cf. Jacob and Jesus’ own parents) and still not be “one flesh” in the sense of living together and establishing a new home and family, was itself a providential “sign” of Israel’s relation to God prior to the coming of the Bridegroom and his union with his bride as symbolized in Jesus’ repeated parables about those ceremonies.  Cf also Jesus’ strange choice of miracle and situation in which to launch his public ministry. (John 2)

Perhaps the reason why “covenant” is exploited as a term and a concept in some Christian traditions is because their conception of both the nature of salvation and of Christian marriage is grossly deficient.  If salvation is little more than the legal, objective, external forgiveness of sins, then the idea of “covenant” fits it quite well – a quid pro quo (as lawyers would put it) arrangement in which justice is satisfied, an inherently guilty person is declared innocent or at least is acquitted on what the court regards as sufficient grounds, etc.  If, however, salvation is nothing less than the creation of a new person (like physical birth) and an eternal, perfect union of the believer with Christ, it is totally inadequate to describe it as a legal arrangement, a mutual “understanding”, a covenant.

In turn, the high divorce rate within the Christian church (as an organization: the Bible indicates it as unthinkable between true members of Christ’s Body) is clear evidence of a low conception of marriage and even lower conception of one’s relationship to God.  The former is indicated, as said, by the fact that Christian couples will go to court to become divorced, contrary to the clear admonition of I Cor. 6:1-11.  (This alone is grounds for church discipline, apart form the divorce itself.  Such couples should be asked, “Why don’t you go, in order to sunder your marriage, to the place and person where your marriage was performed?”)  As regards the latter, in almost every instance of failure of a “Christian” marriage, either one or both is not “married” to God, in Christ.  Both may stoutly claim “church membership”, and their parents may make loud protests about “covenant” membership, but all that is something else.

Next time I’ll address Children (Minors) in Covenant.  

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Covenant, Part I

There is one “type” in Scripture of great importance, long duration, and inclusive of many “sub-types”.  That is the word and concept, “covenant”.  Few doctrines in the Bible are more controversial, confused, misunderstood, even meaningless.

The chief reason for this is the fact that few Christians realize that “covenant”, like such things as the ark of the covenant and the rite of circumcision, was or is a type, and not a final “truth”, like the fact of our atonement  Once upon a time it had reality, “fact”, significance in its own, just as Jonah was an actual historical person with a message for us (about evangelism and enemy-love) if Christ had never come.  But, in addition, he (and his experience) was a picture of Christ.

A great part of the Christian church keeps the idea and term “covenant” alive today (as though we were to embalm Jonah and display him).  Premillenarians – who dislike the present use of the word “covenant”, predict a “thousand years” when it will be very much restored.  Catholics continue some of its elements with priests, sacrifices, alters, etc.  Calvinism makes so much use of the word that it has become a catch-all cliche to avoid clear thinking and good communication.  Some of its denominations are known as “Covenanters”, who even have the Old Testament ideal of a union of church and state (like Israel’s theocracy); they sing only psalms in church, etc.  Other individual congregations have the word “covenant” in their name, but we all make that confusion of Old Covenant and New when we persist in speaking of a church building as “the house of God”; we ought to quit the use of that typological word once and for all.  Some Calvinists reverse this anachronism by talking about the “church” in the Old Testament; this is like calling Moses the first Calvinist.

Here are some of the facts (realized by very few who use the word “covenant” the most); the first occurrence of the word is ages after Adam lived and died; (after the Flood!).  The familiar phrase “covenant of grace” occurs nowhere in Scripture and “covenant” by itself is hardly found in the New Testament.  “Covenant of grace” is basically a contradiction in terms, because “covenant” is a very legal term, and is part of the dispensation of “law”.  IF we can speak of a “covenant of grace”, it did not begin with the New Testament (as it is often thought), but immediately after the Fall.

What we call the “old covenant of testament” (not the 66 books) began as late in history as 1400 BC, maybe millions of years after creation.  The “new covenant”, on the other hand, did not begin at Jesus’ birth; he lived and died in the “old testament”, so that the Four Gospels are included in the New Testament much as the preface and introduction to any book, and Moses’ story of creation to his own times in preparation for the Old Testament, technically not a part of it.

Look at all the different ideas on the covenant TODAY, on the part of those who think the arrangement is still in force!  Some think children of Christian parents belong to it, others do not.  Some say that “our” part in covenant is to “believe”; others say that faith is a gift of God and hence part of “his” side; our obligation is to obey, serve him.  Some think that children who are in the covenant are saved, born again, and will go to heaven if they die in infancy.  Others say that covenant says nothing on that score, but simply makes children members of the Christian “community” and the beneficiaries of Christian nurture which “covenant parents” promise as their part of the contract.

The result of all this contradiction and uncertainty is that instead of the clarity and assurance that any and every type were designed to bring (like the sacraments today)., this only makes for confusion and doubt, on the part of all human part-icipants, but especially parents and children.  (Some even have the idea that if you are a childless adult you are not an active member of any covenant.  Some think children are more so than grown-ups!)  When it comes to the sacraments, which are “covenantal” (using that Old Testament term for the New Testament) signs, some churches permit children to participate in both, some in neither, and some insist that they must in baptism but not in the Lord’s Supper, when – as we shall see – if it is one or the other, the Lord’s Supper should have the preference.

Following the Fall, when man and God became enemies, and before they were made friends again (and more) by the reconciliation of the God/man Jesus Christ, God provided a system of agreements, legal contracts (which is another word for “covenant”), that would bring man as close as possible to him before their at-one-ment in Christ.  These covenants were something like a truce between hostile nations, and, on the part of the human participants, just about as meaningless, since the latter kept on breaking the terms.  These covenants employed mediators (like Moses), and even angels, whose service in the Old Testament was primarily between God and man, while in the New, since they (God and his people) have become inseparable friends, their service is between man and Satan, in defense of the former against the latter.

The covenant between God and Israel was not only an interim thing to be replaced by something completely different (as grace took the place of “law”), but was to be a picture (type) of God’s relation to the church (the fulfillment, or reality).  Israel, as a “chosen” nation, was itself a picture of the Body of Christ; this is why Christ chose exactly 12 apostles, paralleling the 12 tribes.  (Does the frequent use of the number “seven” regarding the church indicate the church’s growth by addition – three, God’s “number”, plus four, that of creation – as well as by multiplication/reproduction – three times four – which was primarily the Old Testament source of growth?)

From all this it will be evident that the purpose and function of “covenant” were served and completed when Christ came and said on the eve of his crucifixion, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  If it be said, “Ah, there!  We are in a covenant still today,” the answer is that the reality that was symbolized in the obsolete sign still continues, but not the form.  A perfect analogy is the fact that we are still under “law” today in the sense that Adam was, before the fall, or we will be in heaven, while Scripture categorically says that the law per se, in its Old Covenant form, has served its purpose and is passed away.  So too with “covenant”, an integral part of a arrangement by law, itself being a legal instrument.  Jeremiah predicted the days of a “new covenant”, in which external law would be no more – a covenant without a contract, and an era of “law” without laws.