My Take on the New Covenant (Part 8)

Read the series.

So we turn to the last two options in Vlach’s list:

  1. 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)
  1. 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 have already stated that in my opinion it is a mistake to view the New Covenant as entailing physical promises. Those are contained in the other covenants, but they require “releasing” upon their stated party (the nation of Israel), which release is secured by the New Covenant, especially at the mass conversion of Israel at the second advent (e.g. Isa. 66:8). The New Covenant therefore is the salvific conduit or stream through which the other covenants mix as they pass through it to their literal fulfillment. Hence, I agree with Option 6 apart from the inclusion of the word “physical.” Having taken out the physical element, I think one can argue that the difference between Option 5 and Option 6 is a semantic one. Asked to phrase Option 6 in another way it is easy to imagine someone coming up with something that sounds very like Option 5. In fine, the New Covenant is given to Israel (although they will not enter into its provisions as a nation until Christ returns), but since “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22) the Church becomes an added referent to the New Covenant in Christ’s blood.

The Apostle Paul as a Minister of Confusion or Clarity

I have already said that to understand Paul’s mention of “the New Covenant in My blood” in 1 Corinthians 11:25 as anything less than a clear indication that the Gentile Christians were seen by him as parties to the NC as they took “the cup,” makes him a pretty shabby communicator. The same can be said of 2 Corinthians 3:6

who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The word rendered “ministers” (diakonos) is used in verse 3 (and throughout the chapter). Just look at the verse:

clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

Who cannot see the continuity and semblance of thought here? If the apostle did not believe the New Covenant was for the Gentiles, then why on earth did he tell them he was ministering it? And why did he draw so close a connection between his ministry to them and his supposed “other” ministry (i.e. of the New Covenant?), or even of some eschatological ministry of which he would not be a part? One would only minister the New Covenant to the party involved. With all due respect to those who demur this beggars belief! What has happened to the “plain sense”? Pray, what is the difference in the context between what Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” (see 2 Cor. 3:9) in verse 3 and “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 6? If Paul wished to create befuddlement in the minds of his Corinthian readers, he certainly went about it the right way.

But it could be argued (and has been) that all Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians 3:6 is drawing a kind of parallel. The argument goes that “ministers of the new covenant” (diakonous kainēs diathēkēs) does not in fact mean that Paul and his companions are actually ministering the New Covenant, only that their ministry resembles the future New Covenant dispensation. I struggle a bit here. For the NC work of the Spirit at the second advent is a complete work resulting in complete obedience (e.g. Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:25-27; Zeph. 3:13), which is quite unlike what we experience today. Still, if that is what Paul is doing one has to ask in interrogative tones, “Why even say such a thing?” How is the argument helped by dropping a “by the way, our ministry is sort of like what the NC ministry will be like” in at verse 6? Why make a comparison of covenants here at all? It surely looks like Paul views “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8) as synonymous with his present work “as [a] minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” two verses earlier. And even if the definite article is missing so that it actually reads “a new covenant” in verse 6, how far does that take us? The contrast is between the Mosaic covenant and some covenant – a covenant involving the Spirit’s gift of new life. Which covenant could that be? The Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants do not include the Spirit’s saving action in their terms. The answer is staring us in the face: the New Covenant!

And what is all this about?

[T]hat at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12-13)

Brought near to what? It would take a long article to fully expound the passage, but for my purposes the key is in the phrase “without God in the world.” The blood of Jesus Christ brings us near to God. It also includes us in the strand of the Abrahamic Covenant reserved for Gentiles (“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” – Gen. 12:3; cf. Gal. 3:13-16). But wait, Paul here speaks of “covenants” plural. Does he mean we are included in the Priestly Covenant with Phinehas (Num 25)? Assuredly not. What about the covenant with David? Again no. The Abrahamic then? Yes, but we need another covenant. and we have one: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor. 11:25).

Salvation Prior to the New Covenant

I have been asked the following question, which deserves an answer:

Both Noah and Abraham received the imputed righteousness of God BEFORE the promise of the New Covenant was made so their being redeemed was not dependent on the New Covenant. And I see no reason to believe that the redemption of the believers in the Body of Christ is dependent on the New Covenant since their redemption is also based on the imputed righteousness of God.

I begin by simply pointing out that if anyone is going to be made right with God it is not going to be on the basis of their righteousness. To assert such is to tacitly deny the doctrine of original sin, as well as its operations in a person’s life and thought. No one merits salvation. Righteousness must be imputed. The only way for a sinner to be saved is by the merits of Christ. Yes, Noah built a boat; Abraham believed what God said about his seed, but God reckoned their faith as righteousness in view of the coming sacrifice of His Son for mankind. Nobody’s salvation is independent of “the imputed righteousness of God.” This is how Job’s testimony in Job 19:25, for example, is to be understood.

Now if sinners of every age are saved on the basis of Calvary, they must perforce be redeemed by the blood of Christ. Therefore the relationship of the blood of Christ to the New Covenant is necessary to ascertain for the question to be answered. To state “their being redeemed was not dependent on the New Covenant,” whether the “they” are Christians or OT saints reveals an assumption based upon a neglect of the main question. Jesus said that His blood was the blood of the New Covenant. So did Paul. The author of Hebrews spends more time talking about blood than anyone else in the NT. He asks,

For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)

In Hebrews there is no doubt at all about what “the blood of Christ” signifies. Jesus “is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.” (Heb. 8:6). And the “better covenant” that He mediates is the New Covenant (Heb. 9:15)! Again,

Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel…Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant… (Hebrews 12:24; 13:12, 20)

The Book of Hebrews spends a lot of time contrasting two covenants—the “old covenant” and the “new covenant.” So we need to inquire further into the connections between Christ and the NC. As I will attempt to show, the relationship is one of identity. That being so, the assertion is that because every saved person in any age is saved by Jesus Christ, they are necessarily saved through the New Covenant. If that sounds anachronistic, it is perhaps because the New Covenant is being seen as an external thing rather than being embodied in a Person. This understanding impacts the whole Christocentric orientation of the Scriptures.

(More to come.)

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There are 2 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks, Paul, for another good article regarding the New Covenant.  I cannot help but note that you chide those who insist upon the "plain sense" of certain OT passages, but are unwilling to accept the plain sense of NT passages because they contradict previously established interpretations based upon the OT.  That, as you know, is of particular interest to me.  Although we will probably never agree completely until we are in Heaven, I find your analysis both refreshing, and amazingly close to some of my own conclusions, clumsy as they apparently seem to you.  Let's keep studying.  Who knows but what we might end up at the same place after all?

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes Greg, I do see a large inconsistency in the way many Dispensationalists handle New Covenant texts in the NT.  I also believe that by focusing on dispensations rather than covenants they severely attenuate their theology.     

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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