Read the series.
Gentiles and Their Connection to the New Covenant
What has proven to be a thorny issue for Dispensationalists is the relation of the Church/Gentiles to the New Covenant. Since the only explicit NC text in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (repeated in Hebrews 8) identifies Israel and Judah as parties to the NC with God, the contention is that the Church is associated with the NC in a less direct way, or perhaps not connected at all! This brings us back to Mike Vlach’s list which we reproduced in Part One.
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
- There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists including John Walvoord)
- The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the church. The New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
- Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)
I am not going to comment on Option 2 (Two New Covenants) other than to say it is not held by anyone today and always was a stretch. Neither am I going to say much about Option 3 (the New Covenant is fulfilled in the Church) because being held by non-dispensationalists, it is irrelevant to my objective in these posts.
Looking now at Option 4 (the Church gets the “spiritual blessings” of the NC) I have to ask, “what on earth are these spiritual blessings?” Is the answer salvation?! And does stating this mean the NC is mainly about physical blessings upon Israel? But those “physical” matters are taken up in the other covenants with Israel. Let us remind ourselves of what Jeremiah 31 promises:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. – Jer. 31:33-34
This is not a promise of land or throne or great productivity. It is the promise of redemption. The New Covenant is about redemption! When redemption is mixed with the other covenants what you get is the coming Kingdom of God on earth – literally fulfilled in line with those covenants. I will come back to Option 4. Let us focus on Option 1 (The Church has no part in the NC).
Roy Beacham wrote a paper entitled “The Church Has No Legal Relationship to or Participation in the New Covenant” which he presented under a different title at the Council for Dispensational Hermeneutics conference in 2009. I think there are several problems with his thesis as well as its central concern.
Biblical Covenants Were Not “Legal Contracts”
It is simply incongruous to parallel ANE covenants with those in the Bible, particularly those which God made. And it is wrong to claim that biblical covenants were contracts, and that therefore they were primarily legal in nature – they were not. As for the first, several scholars have warned about equating the covenants of Scripture with those of the ANE (e.g. Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology, 475). To be fair, Beacham does note that John Walton is (surprisingly) against his view that covenants in the Bible are to be understood against the background of the legal practices of the ANE (see FN 6). But he does spend much time “setting the scene” for his position by citing studies of non-biblical covenants.
As for the second assertion, the trouble is that even the Land or Royal Grant and Suzerain-Vassal Treaties of certain parts of the ANE (e.g. Egypt didn’t go in for them) were not like our contracts. Referring to the New Covenant Jakob Jocz observed,
It is easy to misunderstand the situation if we take the concept of covenant in the legal sense to mean a juridical contract whereby God binds Himself constitutionally… The covenant is not a legal document by which God finds Himself committed… The covenant is the highest expression of His determination to be our God. (The Covenant, 240-241)
Covenants were not legally binding in the sense that there was some high court that could be appealed to. Rather, they were sworn oaths, sometimes to a deity and sometimes to each other. Furthermore, they were often (not always) imposed by the more powerful party. In more garden variety situations, they were solemn oaths made between friends, or even enemies, with no judicial aspect at all.
So Beacham’s thesis is in trouble. But it gets further in the mire once the OT is studied. If one looks at the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21 it is clear that it is based upon the culture of honor and shame. Jonathan’s covenant with David in 1 Samuel 20:11-16 is in private before the Lord. It cannot be said to be a legal procedure. In neither instance was there a written document!
When one comes to God’s covenants it is impossible to bind God legally. To attempt to do so would be to place a law above God. God’s covenants are based solely on God’s own character.
The New Covenant is Not Grounded in Any “Legal” Text of Scripture
On page 16 of his paper, Beacham claims that, “A better understanding of ANE covenants effects a better understanding of biblical covenants. Ignorance of the one leads to misunderstanding of the other.” I have shown, albeit briefly, that this is not the case. Further on in the document he has an important footnote (FN 56) where he argues (against Rod Decker) that:
The New Covenant is not just a promise or prophecy which might find broad, unspecified application or fulfillment; it is a legal instrument. Every covenant, as a legal instrument, specifically includes the name of all contracting parties and any incidental participants in the instrument. By specifically including the names of all parties and participants in the instrument, all others are excluded. (Ibid, 18)
He goes on to assert (this time agreeing with Decker) that the Church is not a legal party to the New Covenant but is a peripheral beneficiary to it. Christians are, in Decker’s language, “onlookers” or “participants” in the New Covenant, but not a party to it.
We shall reserve comment on Decker’s view for another time, but the fact of the matter is that I have shown that Gentiles are included in New Covenant texts like Isaiah 42:6 (which commentators generally note stresses the Nations and which point Matthew 12 makes clearer). We have seen that the same language of spiritual heart transformation and circumcision is used by Paul of the Church as is found in New Covenant passages in the OT (Compare e.g. Deut. 30:4-5; Ezek. 36:26-27 with 2 Cor. 3:3 and Col. 2:11).
Confusing the Function of the Separate Divine Covenants
On page 20 Beacham refers to Ezekiel 36:22-39 as a NC passage and picks out the provisions of the NC as he understands it. It quickly becomes clear that much of Beacham’s argument relies on investing the provisions of the New Covenant with more than they actually contain. He separates many items that are essentially wrapped up in redemption, but adds a few material blessings. This is common enough among Dispensationalists and I believe it to be a harmful error. For example he includes the land promise and restored abundance among the NC terms. But the land promise is part of the Abrahamic covenant, and the restoration of blessings stems from the theocratic promises in the Mosaic covenant, which is brought over into the NC because of Israel’s obedience. Further, since mankind is connected with the ground from which he was created, it goes without saying that a righteous humanity will see its reflection as it were, in the renewal of the ground (Gen. 2:7; 3:9). Great productivity is a blessing of the original creation.
Many Dispensationalists fail to see that the route to literal fulfillment of the covenants with Abraham, Phinehas, and David is through the inner spiritual transformation of the NC. (Basically all the other ‘provisions’ which Beacham sees in Ezek. 36 are a result of the inner work of the Spirit! That is, they are “spiritual”). There would be no reason to include the physical and political blessings in those covenants within the NC. In fact, what that would do is make the other covenants of God utterly devoid of meaning. God’s covenants run in an orderly stream, and are realized by their eventual connection with the New Covenant—who is, as we have shown and will show again, Christ Himself.
More to come…
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.