Monday, October 21, 2019

From Shadow to Substance: the old covenant and the covenant of grace

In a previous post I discussed whether the old covenant was a covenant of works. See here for my review of Shadow and Substance by Samuel D. Renihan.

Speaking of the Abrahamic covenant Particular Baptist pioneer, Nehemiah Coxe wrote that it was, 'a Covenant of Grace and Mercy...yet not that Covenant of Grace' by which Abraham's spiritual seed were saved.' (From Shadow to Substance, p. 257-258, n 122). He applied the same logic to the Sinai covenant. Coxe wanted to distinguish between the Abrahamic covenant as a manifestation of God's grace to the patriarch and his descendants and the covenant of grace proper.

The early Particular Baptists did not agree with the Presbyterian's Westminster Confession and the Independent's Savoy Declaration that the covenant of grace was 'variously administered' during the Old Testament era. The Second London Baptist Confession puts things rather differently, "This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament" (VII.3). 

Promised and promulgated 

Coxe and others were reluctant to identify the old covenant and the covenant of grace. The Abrahamic covenant operated on the basis of natural descent. The covenant was made with the Patriarch and his children who were marked with the seal of circumcision. It was to Abraham and his 'seed', the people of Israel that the Lord promised to give the land of Canaan. From Abraham's 'seed' the Messiah would one day come in whom all nations would be blessed. 

Particular Baptists granted that the covenant of grace was revealed in the types and shadows of Old Testament period, but it was not properly realised until the coming of Christ. It is for that reason that Paul refers to 'the covenants' God made with Israel (Romans 9:14) as 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12). The apostle recognised a diversity of covenants; Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic. The various covenants were united by holding forth the promise of something better in Christ. Those who trusted in the promise were saved on the basis of what Christ would do for them, Romans 3:25-26, Hebrews 9:15. 

A distinction, then, must be maintained between covenant of grace promised and promulgated (legally enacted). The gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham and his children by revelation of the promise of the covenant of grace. See Galatians 3:8, Genesis 3:15, 12:3, 22:18, 2 Samuel 7:12-16. Christ is 'seed' of woman, (Galatians 4:4), the 'seed' of Abraham, (Galatians 3:16), and the 'seed' of David, (2 Timothy 2:8). Promise is different to fulfillment. The covenant grace was only promulgated on death of Testator, Hebrews 9:15-17.  

Sorting the seeds 

But not all of Abraham's offspring were 'children of promise' who laid hold of the promise of grace in the coming Deliverer (Romans 9:8). Paul sorts Abraham's seed, saying, 'not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel' (Romans 9:6). As John the Baptist warned, natural descent from Abraham counted for nothing. What mattered was repentance from sin and faith in 'he who is coming', the Messiah (Matthew 3:9, 11).  According to Paul there was only a godly remnant within Israel 'chosen by grace'. The rest were hardened in their sin and stood condemned for their unbelief and disobedience. That is why Israel was exiled from the Promised Land and why few in Israel believed in the Messiah when he came, (Romans 9:27-29, 11:5, 7). Abraham's spiritual children among his descendants embraced the long-awaited Redeemer and took their place among the new covenant people of God. See Simeon (Luke 2:22-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38). The prospect of the covenant of grace held out during the Old Testament period means that believers today are rightly called to emulate the faith of the 'children of promise', Romans 4, Hebrews 11. Salvation has only ever been by faith in Christ. 

The Orthodox Reformed taught that the covenant of grace was between God and the elect in Christ. Clearly, not all of Abraham's descents were elect. That is why old covenant cannot be identified with the covenant of grace. Under the old covenant true knowledge of the Lord was sometimes rare. The prophets lamented, 'there is no knowledge of God in the land.' (Hosea 4:1). Only a minority in Israel seem to have experienced heart circumcision that led to godly obedience. Witness the period of the Judges, the widespread apostasy in the northern kingdom, followed by Judah. What was the exception under the old covenant is the rule in the new, Jeremiah 31:33-34. That is because the new covenant is the historical realisation of the covenant of grace between God and the elect in Christ. When Jesus the 'seed of promise' came the principle of Belonging to the covenant community by natural descent was phased out along with circumcision as the covenant sign. Only those who trust in Christ belong to the new covenant, with believers' baptism now the sign of belonging, Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38-39, Galatians 3:27-29. 

Israel's chequered history should not be a cause of smugness for the new covenant people of God. Her apostasy is a warning to us to stand by faith and continue in the way of obedience, Romans 11:19-22, 1 Corinthians 10:6-13, Hebrews 10:26-31.  

Weak and unprofitable  

Further, the old covenant cannot rightly be described as an 'administration of the covenant of grace' because it could not in itself save from sin. In that respect it was 'weak and unprofitable', (Hebrews 7:18). Its animal sacrifices were incapable of truly atoning for Israel's transgressions, Hebrews 10:4. The law was 'weakened through the flesh' having no means of providing forgiveness or ensuring obedience, (Romans 8:3). Israel broke the Mosaic covenant through her unfaithfulness, Jeremiah 31:31-32. A new covenant was needed under which sins could be forgiven and hearts transformed, Jeremiah 31:33-34. It was only by seeing the types and shadows of the old covenant as pointers to Christ that the children of Israel could hope to find salvation. 

A covenant of grace, not that covenant of grace 

Yet it is important to underline that the old covenant was not a post-fall republication of the covenant of works. Were that the case, how could a works-based covenant foreshadow a grace-based one? God was gracious towards Israel under the old covenant, 'slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love' (Exodus 34:6-7). The Lord's merciful dealings with Israel served as a trailer for the abounding grace of the new covenant. Israel's undeserved election has its counterpart in the election of individuals in the covenant of grace, Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Ephesians 1:4-5. Israel's redemption previewed Christ's redeeming work, Exodus 6:6, Colossians 1:13-14.  Israel's calling as a 'kingdom of priests' was a harbinger of the role of the new covenant people of God, Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9. Israel's mission was handed on to the church in expanded form, Zechariah 8:20-23, Luke 24:44-49. Israel's inheritance in Canaan served as a pointer to 'a better country, a heavenly one' Deuteronomy 15:4, Hebrews 11:16. Israel's prophets, priests and kings were types of Christ, the great prophet, priest and king. God was certainly good to Israel under the old covenant, Psalm 73:1. But the covenant of grace held out the prospect of yet greater blessings to come, the 'full discovery thereof [being] completed in the New Testament', (Second London Baptist Confession, VII.3 - here).

Covenants of promise 

So, if the old covenant was not a covenant of works, or the covenant of grace, what was it? The old covenant was an expression of God's goodness to Israel and through Israel to the world. But the old was not the same essential covenant as the new, differently administrated. Identifying the old covenant with the covenant of grace flattens off the 'step up' from the old dispensation to the new. The blessings of the old covenant were 'carnal', having to do with covenant membership by natural descent and life in the Promised Land during this present age. The blessings of the new covenant are spiritual and received by faith, Ephesians 1:3, 2:8. The inheritance of the new covenant people of God is the new creation in the age to come, 1 Peter 1:4, 2 Peter 3:13. 

The covenants of the Old Testament era were 'covenants of promise', carrying the pledge of salvation in Christ, but they did not in themselves posses saving grace. The relationship between the old and new covenants is that of shadow and substance, type and antitype, temporary and eternal, provisional and ultimate, the Spirit not yet given and the Spirit poured out on all flesh. The godly remnant in Israel has become the church, in which all are 'called to be saints' (Romans 1:7). The old covenant had its glory, right enough, but the glory of the new covenant is greater (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Now the promise of the covenant of grace has been fulfilled. The Servant of the Lord has come of whom the Lord said, 'I will give you as a covenant for the people' (Isaiah 42:6). The covenant has been  ratified in Christ's blood and its blessings flow forth in abundance, (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).  'But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.' (Hebrews 8:6). And so we sing, 

Blessings on blessings through ages unending,
Covenant fullness in glorious flood;
Ours is a hope which no mortal can measure,
Brought in by Jesus and sealed in His blood.

Jessie F Webb, 1866-1964

No comments: