Summary on Covenant Continuity and Development – Response to Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund has written another response to my last rejoinder.  I agree with him that this has been a great discussion, and I also feel that we should draw it to a close. I think we have painted a clear distinction, and hopefully I can bring more clarity with this response.  Much of the question under debate here revolves around the terms continuity, overlap, and identity.  These are all possible ways of describing the relationship between the old pre-Christ covenants and the New Covenant.  Development of redemptive history is another key component.  Gavin has acknowledged overlap between the covenants, but he is wary of pressing to the point of identity.  He is wary of over-spiritualizing the Old Covenant to the point that redemptive history is “flattened”, having minimal real development.  Let me see if I can summarize my perspective here, then try to answer some of Gavin’s specific questions in a follow up blog post.

Identity means “this” equals “this”.  “This” and “this” are in fact, the same thing.  Although it may surprise Gavin, I do not want to argue that the New Covenant and the Old Covenants are “the same thing”.  I do not want to press to the point of identity.  This would be very difficult to do (because it’s not biblical).  An obvious example of this fact is that the administration of the Old Covenant had to “die” and fade away (Hebrews 8:13), giving way to the New Covenant.  Jesus, the one and only perfectly faithful covenant keeper, died and rose again, and the covenant between God and His people died and rose again with Him.  Or at least the change was initiated – the Old Covenant finally “faded away” completely with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Jesus is the new Temple, the new High Priest, the new sacrifice, the new Passover lamb.  He provides the new purification ritual (baptism) and the new feast (The Lord’s Supper).  The entire covenant administration is now changed; it is transfigured to revolve completely around Jesus Christ.

That said, the Biblical data concerning continuity between the covenants (or perhaps the covenant people of God would be more appropriate) is striking.  The olive tree in Romans 11 makes clear that there is an organic body of people that extends backwards into the past, since the “root” and the “natural branches” are associated with the physical descendants of Abraham (Romans 11:17-20).  The gentiles have been grafted into it, so it is clearly the Church in the New Covenant era.  And note that the reason people were “broken out” of this covenant tree (and could be again in the future) is because of unbelief (verse 20).  Compare also Hebrews 3:12-19 – they were not permitted to enter the land because of unbelief, and New Covenant Christians are encouraged to avoid that example!  Also, in Galatians 4, Paul describes the church as the people of God, come into adulthood.  WE (the church) were children while under the law, but now have received the full adoption as sons.  Jesus has brought us into adulthood.  Finally, 1 Peter 2:9-10 makes the church the direct fulfillment of Israel’s calling from Exodus 19:4-6:

1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, A people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Gavin insists that Israel was a race, a nation (and he’s right). Peter says the church is now a race, a nation, the people of God.  And, incidentally, races and nations include children!  I have written a full blog post about these continuity passages here.  The people of God have existed in continuity throughout redemptive history, and faith (belief) has always been imperative.  Note Jesus’s harsh treatment of the Pharisees in John 8.  The Pharisees, living under the Old Covenant, claim Abraham as their father (which he undoubtedly was, physically).  But Jesus says: ““If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham (verse 39).”  I.e. faith filled obedience.  He denies them Abraham as their father by revealing their true father: the devil (verse 44).  Faith was the critical component of inclusion in God’s family, and it always had been.  The administration of the covenant is what changed.

Which brings up the point about development within redemptive history.  I would argue that my perspective is anything but flat.  Rather it spirals upward toward the revelation and victory of Jesus Christ.  Even within what is classically considered the Mosaic Covenant, we have different eras clearly delineated for us, each of which represents a new stage in the development of the people of God.  It follows the pattern of Priest, King, and Prophet, before culminating in the new man, Jesus Christ, who perfectly assumes all three roles.  Priest: the Mosaic/conquest/judges era, the period of the tabernacle.  The people were held under clearly laid out rules and tested for obedience (similar to childhood).  The prominent figure of this era was the priest, serving in the tabernacle, also following very clear, simple rules.  The priests and the people failed to follow God and were judged, but God in His faithfulness brings about the next stage.  King:  the Davidic/Solomonic kingdom, leading up to the exile.  The period of Solomon’s Temple.  The kings must now use WISDOM in addition to following simple rules (for example Solomon’s story in 1 Kings 3).  We get wisdom literature in this period.  It appears that all is going well for Israel, but David’s sin with Bathsheba, followed by Solomon’s unfaithfulness signals the beginning of the end.  Under evil leadership, the people fall into apostasy (remember Jeremiah 9), and the period is ended with the exile into Babylon.  Interestingly, God is once again using Israel’s unfaithfulness to bring about the next phase of his plan.  Prophet: the era of the captivity and return.  The prophets are the prominent figures of this period.  In this time, God has dispersed his people throughout the world, and the effects of His faithful people begin to be felt on a world-wide scale (Daniel, Esther).  They are great counsellors to the kings of the world.  God begins to call other nations into submission to Himself (for example, Jonah’s mission trip to Nineveh, among others).  John the Baptist is the last (and greatest) prophet of the Old Covenant era, a fulfillment of his typological predecessor, Elijah.  This period also fails to bring about faithfulness in Israel as a whole, as the leaders kill John, and ultimately Jesus.  The New Man:  The new man is obviously Jesus Christ.  And while there is development within the Old Covenant that is representative of childhood (priest), early to mid adulthood (king), and older adulthood (prophet), all three are actually part of the childhood of the people of God (again, Galatians 4) in relation to the revelation of Jesus Christ (the first REAL man), and the outpouring of his Spirit on his new bride.  When do you get married?  When you reach adulthood.

Finally, what is the ultimate difference between the older covenants and the New Covenant in Christ?  The old covenants (and all the phases therein as described above) are all marked by failure.  They all had to “die” and be “resurrected”.  This will never happen with the New Covenant.  It will persist forever because the victory has already been won in the death/resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He sits at the Father’s right hand as king of the world (Revelation 1:4-5), where “He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).”  He has sent His Spirit to continually form, reform, and purify His bride.

In summary, I do not affirm identity of the old covenants with the New.  However, I do affirm an amazing progression of redemptive history in which there is tremendous continuity and well as tremendous development.  And put simply, I do not believe that God included the children of believers through all the hard work of growing and maturing HIS PEOPLE, only to cut them out as the crescendo of His purposes was being reached.  I could give many specific verses that lead me to that conclusion, but I have done that elsewhere.  I will provide a follow-up blog post to answer some of Gavin’s specific questions from his last post.

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3 thoughts on “Summary on Covenant Continuity and Development – Response to Gavin Ortlund

  1. The New Covenant redefines “sonship” as spiritual/ethical. Abraham was only a type of the true Father. The regenerate are a priesthood to the world in the way that the Aaronic order was a priesthood to Israel. This means that all children in the world today are under the New Covenant (called to “hear”) in the way that Israel’s children were under the Old Covenant (“hear, O Israel”). This makes paedobaptism redundant.

    • Interesting thoughts Mike. I have to admit I have never heard anything like that. Just to probe that a little bit, if the regenerate are the fulfillment of the Aaronic priesthood, does that mean that the unbelieving world is the fulfillment of Israel in general? This SOUNDS bogus (on face value), since it was Israel as a whole that was the people of God, with the priests having a specific ministerial role. But all the people went through all the baptismal precursor events/rituals, such as the Red Sea, the washing system (including circumcision), etc. They all ate the feasts as well. True, the priestly ordination washing was a baptismal precursor, but it is just one aspect that is now summed up in Baptism. All the church is now ordained as priests, making us the fulfillment of the “priestly nation” prophecy, as I described above. Do you propose waiting until 30 to baptize, as per the Aaronic priesthood requirements? If all people are in the new covenant, then do you wait until after baptism to offer the Lord’s Supper? Is it a special meal for only the “regenerate” (and how do you know who is or isn’t), or is it free for the taking since everyone is in the New Covenant?

  2. I’m found this fascinating, but I’m pretty much along the lines of an old fashioned replacement theologian following the earliest reformed traditions. Following Paul’s logic Abraham’s promise was to his seed & we have that promise in Jesus. It’s all one covenant through faith and adoption. In fact, Moses is just as saved by Jesus same as you and me… and in his own way his relationship with God was the same as ours. Israel is still a nation sure, but they’ve got no special spiritual claim to anything anymore. Like Esau, the legitimate first-born child (or Joseph’s older son), they are not necessarily ‘picked.” Calling him the “God of Jacob,” the fact that he covers us with his blood and righteousness as Jacob wore his brother’s “fur,” and the calling the sick not the healthy, builds a motif that I think should be guiding.

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